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.