You Spray, You Pay

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

So far the only treatment for people with MCS is to avoid exposure. When her surroundings are chemical-free, Peterson is active running Mermaid Productions, an entertainment business featuring "mermaids" and "mermen" who perform pool shows during parties. Dressed as a mermaid, Peterson also plays guitar and sings about the environment in schools and parks. In her favorite song, "Don't Poison the Mermaid," she pleads with folks not to use pesticides that poison her. She often introduces herself as "Mermaid Susan." In fact, when Dr. Moses was first contacted for this story, she said of Peterson, "Oh yeah, the mermaid lady. Of course I know Susan Peterson."

Although she's certified to teach English as a second language, Peterson claims she can no longer teach because of the cleaning chemicals prevalent in schools. Before accepting an invitation to perform anywhere, she asks if the venue has recently been sprayed with pesticides.

"I want to be out and about like everybody else," Peterson says, explaining why she invokes the ADA and complains so readily when the city or her neighbors spray. She sees the notice she gets from Fort Lauderdale's parks and recreation department every morning as a minor inconvenience for the city, which she claims is biased when it comes to pesticide issues.

"They've been brainwashed by the chemical companies to deny that there are serious health effects, not only to me but to every child, pregnant woman, and athlete in training in that facility," Peterson says.

Absent the scientific and clinical proof, however, the pesticide industry begs to differ.

"There's been a scare going around in the last ten years about multiple chemical sensitivities," says Dan Watts, the South Florida sales manager for Monsanto, the company that manufactures Roundup. "You can't explain those [symptoms] away, but the data indicates that our product has less toxicity than table salt."

Peterson couldn't stand the thought of sharing TREC with a pesticide-company salesman, but that's what she was asked to do when the city appointed Monsanto representative Ross Hakes to the committee last fall. TREC has about a dozen members, including Hakes, city employees, residents experienced in landscaping and pest control, environmental activists, a local veterinarian, and Robert Haines, an entomologist and pesticide consultant from Orlando.

From the very beginning, Peterson wasn't happy with the way things were going. She vehemently protested not only the appointment of Hakes, but of Connor and the city's environmental program coordinator, Karl Shallenberger, whom she believed would resist any change to the city's pesticide program. When committee members began criticizing her for distributing minutes of their meetings to politicians behind their backs, she resigned. "I didn't want to have a dispute with anybody," she says. "I just thought that if I provided the information, that people would agree with me. How silly."

Peterson says that it became clear to her that the committee would not fight for completely pesticide-free parks, and she won't settle for anything less.

"This feud I have with the city is something that's going on with people all around the country," Peterson says. "I think there's an increasing awareness that many people would like, particularly for children, to be able to play in areas that will be healthy, where they can go out and play in the grass and not be exposed to poisons."

Reeves, who used to own a plant nursery and continues to work in landscape design, took over as chairman of the committee in February. While he admires Peterson's passion, he believes that she's politically shortsighted.

"The unfortunate thing is that she wants to eliminate pesticides altogether, and it won't happen," he says. "What I've tried to teach Susan is -- baby steps. I know that if we sit and pick our projects and look at them carefully, we can get phenomenal results in this city."

Peterson didn't want TREC to take baby steps. She modeled it after committees in Sarasota and San Francisco that have passed countywide rules banning some pesticides and creating pesticide-free parks. While pest-control operators and county employees sit on the Sarasota committee, organizer Ann Mason says that she never would have tolerated the appointment of a manufacturer's representative. Likewise no manufacturer's rep sits on the committee in San Francisco, where the plan is to ban all pesticides by the year 2000.

With a pilot program almost under way in Fort Lauderdale, Peterson now has her sights set on Broward County. Her goal is to create an ordinance that requires the use of less-toxic pesticides and herbicides in county parks and public places. To draft the ordinance, she's recruited the help of three third-year law students at the Environment and Land Use Law Center at Nova Southeastern University. The students hope to have the ordinance written by May.

"She seems very passionate about this, which I respected," Melissa Jacobs, age 25, says, explaining why she took on the project. "This is something that a lot of people don't think about on a daily basis."

Peterson does, of course. One wrong turn in her Ford Bronco, and she could come across city workers spraying a median with toxic pesticides. Steve Boone, Peterson's husband, considers people like her human guinea pigs, who are showing the first signs of what 40 years of chemical exposure can do.

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