You Spray, You Pay
David Park hopped out of the Ford pickup truck wearing his bright white protective suit, respirator, and goggles. It was about 10 a.m. on June 21, 1993, and the Broward County parks worker had just finished spraying a potent mix of pesticides and herbicides on the football field at Tequesta Trace Park in Weston. Not far from the field is Tequesta Trace Middle School, which, on that day, was brimming with children attending summer camp.
Park had already told a teacher at the school that the kids, ages nine to twelve, should avoid going anywhere near the field until the chemicals had dried. But as he turned off the spray machine, he noticed a large group of boys, about 60 or so, roughhousing on the grass. The toxic, or poisonous, pesticides Park was using kill weeds and bugs on contact, and, absorbed through the skin or inhaled, they can be harmful to humans, especially kids, whose immune systems are not as mature as those of adults. That's why Park was wearing a special suit.
But most of these kids were wet with the stuff, their clothes drenched. Park called 911, and when the paramedics arrived a few minutes later, they took one look at the pesticide and herbicide labels -- MSMA; Sencor; 2,4-D Amine -- and called the county's hazardous-materials response squad. The haz-mat crew, wearing respirators and protective suits, led the kids to the middle school's locker-room showers, where they were showered and scrubbed down, their clothes rinsed clean. But their leather sneakers, which had absorbed the chemicals and therefore couldn't be decontaminated, were thrown away.
"There was nothing I could do for those kids," Park recalled recently. "The second those chemicals come in contact with your skin, it's absorbed."
The media were soon on the scene, and Park holed up in the park's administration building. Meanwhile Gene Herrera, a spokesman for the county's emergency services squad, told reporters that the scrub-down was only a precautionary measure, that the children hadn't reported any problems because of the exposure. Everything was under control, he said. No need for concern.
But Susan Peterson was very concerned. In 1992 she'd been diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) after being exposed to a large dose of pesticides in her southwest Fort Lauderdale neighborhood. Since then she'd been researching toxic pesticides and knew just how dangerous they could be. Initial contact may cause rashes and burning of the eyes, nose, and throat. If the skin absorbs the chemicals, vomiting, dizziness, even seizures, may result. Worst case, the chemicals poison the bloodstream and cause long-term illnesses, resulting in chronic headaches, incontinence, and loss of muscle coordination.
Only one boy complained of a headache the day after the 1993 incident, and county employees say no one has since reported prolonged effects.
But Peterson, now age 55, clipped the newspaper stories and sent them to Broward County Commissioner Lori Parrish, who passed them along to the county's Department of Natural Resource Protection. Peterson was active in her neighborhood homeowners association, so she knew something about politics, mainly that persistence gets results. Over the next few years, she pushed the DNRP to spread the word about less-poisonous ways to eradicate bugs and weeds. One result of her efforts is Common Sense Pest Control, a 40-page booklet on pesticide alternatives, which she helped research. When the booklet was published, she mailed and/or handed copies to every politician she could find from Fort Lauderdale to Tallahassee.
The booklet's main message: Using toxic products to ensure bug-free, weed-free yards kills hundreds of beneficial plants and bugs. Peterson's message goes a step further. Our obsession with greener grass, she claims, has the potential to kill people, too. To get the word out, Peterson has spent the last few years faxing studies and articles outlining the harmful effects of toxic pesticides to Fort Lauderdale city commissioners and parks maintenance workers. She also founded Fort Lauderdale's Toxics Reduction Education Committee (TREC), which has devised a pesticide-alternative pilot program that will begin this month. Under controlled conditions, maintenance workers will replace toxic with nontoxic products on playing fields in two city parks, then determine whether those products do an adequate job of eradicating weeds and bugs. If they do, parks across the city may eventually be treated with regular doses of biological products, which come from living bacteria and insects, rather than chemicals.
"Without Susan this never would have happened," says TREC chairman Bill Reeves. "She's really fantastic."
"Fantastic" is not a word everyone would use to describe Peterson. The pest-control operators she's tried to drum out of her neighborhood aren't big fans, nor are the politicians who insist that there's no reason to stop using legal, EPA-approved pesticides. Peterson points out that the attorney for the Florida Pest Control Association (FPCA) once called her "pigheaded." Brendan Cavanagh, former president of the FPCA, says that, regardless of how his organization feels, people like Peterson have changed the pesticides industry with their public crusades.
"What we're finding is that people are more aware of chemicals and prefer a minimum use [of them] in and around their homes," says Cavanagh, president of Petri's Positive Pest Control in Pompano Beach. "And you do [use fewer chemicals] to protect yourself from lawsuits. Even if you're completely right, just to defend yourself can be incredibly expensive. So you just want to steer away from having to go through that."
Just about every morning, Peterson's fax machine spits out a pesticide-spraying notice, which tells her where Fort Lauderdale maintenance workers will be spraying that day. She's the only resident in the city who receives such notices from Willie Arnett, the city's parks and recreation department pest-control supervisor. Peterson put up such a fuss after getting sick in 1995 that top city officials agreed to the arrangement. Simply smelling pesticides causes her head to ache and sinus tissues to swell, she claims. If she inhales the vapors, her breathing passageways may become completely blocked.
Dr. Bruce Dooley, one of Peterson's doctors at M.D. Med Center in Fort Lauderdale, backs up Peterson's claims and considers her condition chronic. In fact, he's written a letter addressed to "Whom It May Concern," meaning any pest-control operator or neighbor who doesn't believe pesticides make Peterson sick. "Her respiratory syndrome can become life-threatening on exposure to pesticides," the letter reads, "because of the reactive inflammation which occurs in Ms. Peterson's airways following exposures to pesticide vapors, fumes, spray, or dust."
Neither Dooley nor Albert Robbins of Boca Raton, who treats Peterson for exposures, returned several phone calls for comment on Peterson's condition or MCS.
What Peterson is up against in Fort Lauderdale she'd be up against in any South Florida city. Bugs and weeds love the humidity and warmth of the region, and using toxic products is considered the most cost-effective and labor-saving way of clearing public parks of pests and weeds. On a daily basis, parks workers visit public places with two-and-a-half-gallon spray bottles of Roundup, a brand-name herbicide, and douse unwanted weeds. They use the pesticide Orthene to kill armies of mole crickets, which burrow under playing-field turf and feed on grass roots. Left to their own devices, mole crickets are capable of killing entire patches of grass, which would have to be replaced with sod.
Peterson isn't the only one to complain about toxic-product use. In 1990, two years before she was diagnosed with MCS, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services created the Registry of Pesticide Sensitive Persons in response to numerous complaints statewide. Today the registry lists 108 people, including Peterson, who are notified by commercial pest-control companies planning to spray in their neighborhoods.
Another solution to the growing problem is Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which has become a buzz term among toxic-pesticide users. The idea behind IPM is to mix less-toxic pesticides with better gardening methods, such as using native plants that require less maintenance and changing watering and mowing schedules. Governments across the country are beginning to make use of IPM, and a few have created oversight boards to help find less-toxic pesticides and herbicides. In fact, in the last three years, Fort Lauderdale's parks and recreation department has decreased the amount of toxic pesticides that it uses. Between 1995 and 1996, parks workers spread 3800 pounds of dry toxic product and 340 gallons of liquid product, according to parks supervisor Kathy Connor. Estimates for the 199899 season are 932 pounds and 232 gallons, she says.
"[The reduction is] all about safety, health, and welfare," Connor adds. "It's being concerned with how all this interacts with the little guy, who's out there using the parks and ball fields. You never know."
Connor insists that the city has been actively reducing toxic-product use for years. But it wasn't until Peterson stepped in and complained to politicians directly that the city began to publicly address the amount and types of chemicals it was using.
"She is the resident expert on this and has been instrumental in getting us to change the way we do things," Mayor Jim Naugle says. "[City parks department employees] see her as an annoyance, but she's only trying to help."
The city primarily uses three products to control bugs and weeds in public places, according to Connor. Threatening manicured medians and mulched fence lines are torpedo grass, dollar weed, and spurge. The biggest pests in picnic and recreation areas are mole crickets, chinch bugs, and fire ants, which are capable of inflicting a painful sting. Logic, a biological product that prevents bugs from reproducing, is a slow-acting agent, which an ant eats, then takes back to its mound, where the pesticide eventually kills other ants. Roundup, the world's best-selling herbicide, which kills anything green it touches, is sprayed on weedy spots. If an area becomes infested with bugs and must be treated right away -- say a Boy Scout picnic is overrun with fire ants -- Connor may authorize the use of Orthene, a highly toxic pesticide that attacks a bug's nervous system, killing it instantly.
MCS sufferers like Peterson argue that pesticides and herbicides are just a couple of the chemically based contemporary luxuries that make their lives so difficult. But they don't have much evidence to back up their claims. Research on the effects that a chemical or group of chemicals has on humans has been inconclusive, mainly because it's extremely difficult to identify a causal relationship between chemicals and MCS suffers' symptoms. The symptoms range from chronic fatigue to mental confusion, from headaches to a rapid heartbeat. Without evidence of a causal relationship, renowned groups such as the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, and the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology have refused to take a position on MCS.
Some doctors argue, however, that numerous exposures to toxic pesticides, or even one excessive exposure, may harm just about anyone. Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat may be felt within hours or even minutes of coming in contact with a toxic pesticide, according to Dr. Marion Moses, founder and director of the Pesticide Education Center in San Francisco and author of the book Designer Poisons. Even worse, rashes or blisters may develop on the skin, and a full-fledged poisoning of the blood may result in headaches, nausea, mental confusion, and seizures. Children are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure and may develop lifelong illnesses as a result, Moses says. Two of the biggest reasons: a child's immune system is less mature than an adult's; and a child takes more breaths per minute, thus increasing his or her chance to ingest poisonous vapors.
"You wouldn't give your child a pill each day of even a low level of neurotoxins. But with pesticides, that's what you're doing. These are avoidable toxic exposures."
Peterson says that she couldn't avoid the pesticides she was exposed to on July 26, 1995. She was at the International Swimming Hall of Fame just off the beach in Fort Lauderdale that day, swimming in the outdoor pool, when she noticed a strange smell. The city-owned building is surrounded by beds of flowers, and across the street is a grassy lot. What Peterson didn't realize was that city workers were spraying the area with the pesticide Dursban, which, like Orthene, goes directly to work on an insect's nervous system. (Some argue that the widely used product affects the human nervous system as well. One of the major producers of chlorpyrifos, the active ingredient in Dursban, was fined $700,000 by the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to report studies that showed nervous-system damage in users of pesticides.)
Peterson says that she'd just started her daily half-mile swim when she got a whiff of the Dursban. Suddenly her sinus tissues started to swell, and before long her nasal passages were completely blocked. She cut her workout short and headed home to rest. But the next day she went straight to the office of her doctor, who set her up with an IV of vitamins C and B complex to help rid her body of the chemicals. As a result of that incident, Peterson asked the city to stop spraying pesticides near the pool. Connor and her bosses resisted, insisting that the minimal spraying couldn't be harmful.
"They aren't recognizing my disability," Peterson says indignantly. "My doctors have recommended that I train to help with my immune system and keep me healthy, and spraying around the pool prevents me from doing that. I don't want to be excluded. I want a reasonable accommodation. It's not reasonable for me to have a choice to either risk further damage to my health or not train."
Peterson, of course, didn't give up. She continued to demand satisfaction, eventually in writing. In an effort to appease her, City Manager George Hanbury suggested she put together an advisory board that would review Fort Lauderdale's use of pesticides in public places and suggest less-poisonous alternatives. The Toxics Reduction Education Committee met for the first time last October. For various reasons, Peterson is no longer on the committee, but her goal of reducing toxic-product use in city parks will soon be realized with the pilot program TREC has developed.
As part of the program, the city will replace Orthene with a biological product that will be used on playing fields in Bayview Park, located on Northeast 44th Street, east of Federal Highway. Biological products are comprised primarily of living organisms, not chemicals. In three baseball infields at Bayview, workers will use BotaniGard, a brand name for a fungus found in low concentrations in soil. When mixed with water and sprayed over infected areas, the fungus works its way into the mole cricket and eats it from the inside out. The Bayview experiment, which is expected to begin this month, will take two to three months to complete, according to TREC chairman Reeves.
The city will also experiment with three or four biological fertilizers designed to strengthen soil by allowing natural predators to thrive. Chemicals kill not only weeds and bugs but also some beneficial elements of healthy soil, such as microscopic worms, bacteria, and beetles. Soil rich with these natural predators keeps weed and insect infestations in check and thus reduces the need for toxic pesticides, Reeves says. The fertilizer experiment, which will be conducted on four baseball infields at Floyd Hull Stadium in southwest Fort Lauderdale, will take six months or more to complete, he adds.
Although the project is not officially a part of the pilot program, the city will also provide Peterson with her "reasonable accommodation" by figuring out a way to rid the grounds around the International Swimming Hall of Fame of weeds, thus eliminating the need to use Roundup. Reeves says that a better landscape design may do the trick.
Should the experiments prove successful, the city would have to determine just how cost-effective and labor-intensive biological product use is. Cost will definitely be an issue, because at roughly $48 a quart, BotaniGard is about three times as expensive as Orthene. But the tradeoff, Peterson points out, is less use of harmful pesticides and safer parks for kids and adults.
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."
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.
"The more I got into it, the more I realized that because almost all these components and compounds are nerve agents, that eventually that's going to cause cumulative damage to everyone on the planet," he says. "Some people are more resistant than others, but we're kind of being lulled to sleep by this 'Better Living Through Chemistry' [advertising] campaign that I grew up with in the '50s. Susan and people like her are the ones who are giving us choices, because they're the canaries in the mineshaft.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.