You Spray, You Pay

A pilot program in Fort Lauderdale challenges the notion that the grass is always greener when treated with chemical pesticides

Any new pesticides that are both affordable and effective would be used not only in existing parks, Connor says, but in new parks slated to be built across the city. In November 1996, voters supported a $35 million bond to upgrade and build more parks. Work on the new parks is slated to begin this summer.

While Peterson is pleased with the steps being taken to improve conditions in the city's parks, she won't be happy until toxic pesticides are completely eliminated.

"Because of what I know, I'm clearly convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that pesticides are harmful to children, and [their use] should be stopped immediately and anything less is unconscionable," Peterson says.

She doesn't have any children of her own, but Peterson knows what it means to be active. She started swimming as a teenager in the Bronx and was a national collegiate swimming champion at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963. She taught English in a German middle school in 1965 and 1966, then hitchhiked to India and Israel. When she returned to the United States, she lived for a while in Puerto Rico where she learned Spanish, then sailed to Charleston, South Carolina, where she founded a performing arts center. Peterson moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1985 and met her husband, Steve Boone, at a sushi bar on the 17th Street Causeway. They married in the summer of 1991.

Peterson says that, looking back, she realizes that many of the activities she engaged in exposed her to chemicals. Paint solvents, lacquer thinner, boat cleaners, and paint for stage sets were among the materials she worked with, and they eventually did damage to her body. For her that damage became evident on March 6, 1992, the day a neighbor sprayed pesticides that wafted into her house.

"I'll never forget the day. I was having coffee, reading the paper, and all of a sudden, my sinuses start going snap, snap -- a snapping noise right up here, inside," she says, pinching the bridge of her nose. "And then I smelled pesticides, and I started feeling really sick."

At first, she had just allergy-like symptoms, but she soon became disoriented and confused. Her heart started to race, and panic set in. Within half an hour, she was in her doctor's office, hooked up to an IV. After returning home Peterson talked to her neighbor, and he agreed to warn her ahead of time when he'd be spraying. But ever since the incident, Peterson has had reactions to products that never used to bother her -- small doses of pesticides sprayed down the block, perfume, cigarette smoke, and laundry soap among them. She's written letters to her neighbors, asking them to stop using toxic pesticides altogether, but not everyone has.

"Most people don't care about people with MCS, because they think they are being unnecessarily demanding," Moses says. "Most people can use these chemicals and not get into any trouble. They think it must be OK because they're OK."

The biggest problem with MCS is that no one knows exactly why one person reacts so differently than another when exposed to certain chemicals. One theory among doctors who specialize in environmental medicine is that each person is able to ingest only a specific amount of toxins, and that once a quota has been filled, any exposure afterward, large or small, will cause reactions. Some people never reach their threshold, while others don't realize that they have and attribute chronic fatigue or headaches to some other cause. Arguing the other side of the issue are doctors who insist that MCS is all in the head. One study, conducted in 1996 by the Royal Congress of Physicians, Psychiatrists, and General Practitioners, claims that 75 percent of those who say they suffer from MCS have underlying psychological or psychiatric problems.

Robert J. McKee, a lawyer with Krupnik, Campbell, Malone, Roselli, Buser, Slama, and Hancock, and one of the only lawyers in South Florida who accepts toxic-exposure cases, says that, because of the medical debate, the MCS issue often gets settled in a courtroom.

"If you can show that a chemically sensitive person was not that way before a massive exposure, then that's all it takes," says McKee, who spends 95 percent of his time working on exposure cases. "It's a wholly legitimate diagnosis, and [those who dispute it] are absolutely wrong. The fact that a significant portion of the population may not get ill at all does not mean that the others were not affected severely.

"If you hold with the school of thought that since there's a dispute, it doesn't exist, then Alzheimer's doesn't exist either. It didn't for years and years. But we know better now."

Peterson has had better luck asserting her rights as a disabled person under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA demands that a disabled person should be provided with "reasonable accommodation," such as wheelchair ramps in public places.

"To me, I have just as much right to reasonable accommodation and not to be excluded as a person in a wheelchair," Peterson says. "What [toxic pesticide users] are doing to me is the equivalent of putting a bunch of garbage on a wheelchair ramp and telling people, 'We don't want your kind coming around, and we're gonna store garbage on the wheelchair ramp and, so, don't come around.' When you have somebody who looks as healthy as I do on the outside,... they can't see what my neurological system looks like or what my sinus area looks like. They can't see the ulcerations in there. They can't see the pain I'm suffering. Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 'disability' is defined as something that involves a major life function. Well, breathing is a major life function."

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