Toxic Bagels: A Dursban Case Study

For decades U.S. government regulations left Americans, especially children, vulnerable to the hazards of pesticides. For one thing, standards were generally established to safeguard the health of fit adult males, leaving children and pregnant women, who may be vulnerable to lower levels of exposure, unprotected. For another, regulators assumed that a person was exposed to dangerous chemicals only one at a time, when in fact even a typical dinner plate may contain several.In 1996 Congress passed landmark legislation to improve safety standards, leaving the details to be worked out by the Environmental Protection Agency. Critics now insist that the EPA has fumbled the job, compromising standards set by the law and missing key deadlines, leaving the most dangerous pesticides on the market beyond the date Congress mandated. The case of one pesticide, Dursban, illustrates the danger when officials fail to act.The Story of Michael EashWhat happened to Michael Eash reads like a long, drawn out episode from a book of parental nightmares. Although he had always been a healthy child, during the 1992-1993 school year, he missed thirty days of school due to mysterious "flu-like symptoms." The six-year old, from a leafy Philadelphia suburb, suffered from debilitating headaches, nausea and bouts of diarrhea that "seemed to increase each day the week progressed, and then resolved over the weekend," according to his doctor.His health miraculously improved over summer vacation. Yet when he returned to school, his teachers reported that he was struggling, and again his health deteriorated. Finally, in November of 1993, he and sixteen other children fell violently ill after lunch in the cafeteria. One girl later had a seizure.Fed up, his mother, Connie Eash, took control and removed him from the school. After ruling out food poisoning (the sick children were eating a variety of meals), she requested a list of chemicals that the school was using, and did some research (at the time she was finishing a Ph.D. in pharmacology). She learned that workers routinely sprayed a pesticide known as Dursban in the cafeteria.After medical tests indicated that Dursban was the likely culprit, Michael's mother reported her findings to the administration, which stopped using the pesticide. Months later, when Michael's health had improved, he returned to school. Yet after more than five years, he still shows signs of neurological damage. He has problems paying attention and doesn't perform well in school, though his mother says he was reading before kindergarten. When he encounters pesticides and other industrial chemicals, he falls sick again, with symptoms similar to his initial poisoning. "He has to go home and sleep for about sixteen hours after such an incident, and in a few days he gets better," his mother says.In fact, Michael is not alone. EPA data reveals that Dursban, one of the most common pesticides in America, poisons over a thousand people each year. Moreover, scientists suspect that the daily low-level exposure many Americans unknowingly experience may contribute to more widespread harm, especially among children. Evidence from animal studies, cited by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), suggests that chronic exposure to low levels of Dursban may play a role in nerve and brain damage, delayed physical development, immune system deficiencies, and possibly birth defects.Some scientists say that although they need more data to understand fully the effect of the pesticide, there is reason to believe that low-level exposure may cause a host of other problems common to neurotoxins, of which Dursban is one. These could include "attention deficit disorders, aggression, delinquent behavior, and learning disabilities," according to Dr. Herb Needleman, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, and a member of the Environmental Protection Agency's Scientific Advisory Panel on pesticides.EPA Drops the BallThese days, what angers Connie Eash the most is that the EPA, which is currently reviewing its standards for Dursban, appears to be favoring the interests of the pesticide industry over the health of Americans.To protect children like Michael, whose developing bodies are particularly vulnerable to toxins, Congress unanimously passed the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996. The Act requires the EPA to apply a new standard of safety -- ten times greater -- than the exisiting limit set on exposure to pesticides. This is called the "child protection safety factor."The Act was unusually popular. Consumer advocates hailed it as a major step forward for public health. Even Republicans overwhelmingly approved. (Then under siege, the Republican-dominated Congress needed to demonstrate that it was willing to act to protect consumers.) Stranger still, industry supported the law. In a deal with legislators business agreed not to fight the Act in exchange for an amendment that allowed the EPA to permit some carcinogenic pesticides in foods if the risk is very small.Despite the travails of many victims, and despite the evidence concerning Dursban's health effects, the EPA has proposed new standards weaker than those mandated by the law. The NRDC says the new standard is illegal because it permits doses that are three times more potent than allowed by the child protection safety factor. (The public comment period on the draft decision ended in late December; the agency is expected to finalize its assessment on Dursban this spring.)The EPA's move has outraged many, who accuse the agency of caving in to farmers, the pest control industry and Dow AgroSciences, the pesticide's main manufacturer. Public interest groups -- like the NRDC, the Environmental Working Group and Consumers Union -- call for a ban on the chemical. They argue that the EPA's failure to impose strict controls on Dursban endangers the health of Americans, mocks the scientific evidence, and violates federal law.The New York State Attorney General's Office, which submitted extensive comments on the EPA's draft ruling, also wants Dursban banned. "We've received a number of calls from people who are damaged by this," explains policy advisor Judith Enck. "[Dursban] is heavily used in New York State and we have some very strong concerns about the health and ecological impacts, and in our testimony we call for the product to be taken off the market."Dr. Philip Landrigan, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee that inspired Congress to enact the law, says the most telling evidence of toxicity comes from animal studies which show that very small Dursban exposures during pregnancy can cause brain damage in the fetus. Landrigan stresses that while there are no studies on the effects of Dursban on developing human brains, the animal studies are sufficiently reliable to warrant action. He points out that such "data on children would be impossible, if not unethical, to obtain." Based on the available evidence Dursban "should be the poster child for applying the special child protection safety factor mandated in the Food Quality Protection Act," he says.Dursban Is EverywhereThough few Americans know it, the EPA's ruling on Dursban concerns everyone. A study cited in the agency's analysis found a byproduct of Dursban (or a close chemical cousin used by farmers) in the urine of over 80 percent of adults. Since Dursban breaks down relatively quickly, these residues suggest that it may be "nearly ubiquitous in the human environment," according to David Wallinga, M.D., a senior scientist with the NRDC.Like any neurotoxin, Dursban interferes with the normal functioning of the central nervous system, including the brain. It works basically the same way in humans as it does in insects. In fact, Dursban belongs to a group of chemicals known as organophosphates, which were first developed by the Germans in the 1930s and were later used to kill people in concentration camps during World War II. More recently, members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikio used the organophosphate Sarin to try to exterminate commuters on the Tokyo metro. The Pentagon is investigating whether substantial use of organophosphates to control desert pests during the Gulf War caused the neurological ailments known as Gulf War Syndrome.Dursban, and its agricultural cousin Lorsban (the active ingredient in both is chlorpyrifos), kills everything from fleas, flies and ticks to ants and cockroaches. Dow AgroSciences sells 25 million pounds of it each year, making it one of the top ten pesticides in the country, and it is the most commonly applied treatment for termites.Products containing the pesticide are widely used not only on food, but in schools, offices, hospitals, restaurants and homes; it's the active ingredient in some lawn treatments and pet collars. A 1990 study found that nearly one in five American households stored containers of it. Ever since the pesticide chlordane, a carcinogen, was taken off the market in 1988, Dursban's use has skyrocketed.There is also evidence that children, whose developing bodies and immature defense mechanisms make them particularly vulnerable, experience high levels of exposure:Dr. Landrigan, the chairman of the National Academy of Sciences pesticide committee, says that the pervasive urban use of Dursban raises a red flag for children. In New York State, he points out, the two counties that lead in sales of the pesticide are Manhattan and Brooklyn. "We have a pesticide that is toxic to children being used in many places where small children live, eat and play every day." Landrigan's fears are hardly hypothetical. Of all the Dursban exposures reported to Poison Control Centers, nearly half involve children under six, according to the EPA's analysis.Other critics contend that the cumulative exposure a child might experience each day is a major concern. A child could breath, ingest or come in contact with the pesticide at school, at home, through drinking water and food, via "drift" if the home or school is near a farm, as well as every time he or she brushes up against a pet's flea collar. One study cited by NRDC found Dursban in 67 percent of carpets, a harrowing fact considering that toddlers, who spend much of their day playing on the floor, may put their hands in their mouth from twenty to sixty times per hour. NRDC also notes that some applications may compound the risks: when exterminators spray a residence for termites, an elevated level of Dursban may show up in well water.A Minnesota study identified a metabolite of Dursban in the urine of over 90 percent of children tested, at average levels four times higher than those found in adults. A pesticide of choice for many foods that children prefer, it is found in apples, oranges, peaches, and pears. According to research conducted by the Environmental Working Group, using U.S. Department of Agriculture data, it's even found in trace amounts in some bagels. It also has been shown to concentrate in the breast milk of animals, according to NRDC (human data is not available).While scientists remain uncertain whether eating any one of these foods will cause immediate concern, they argue that widespread exposure could pose health risks. Yet for decades the government (in part due to weak legislation from Congress) regulated each dose as if it were the only one that a child was exposed to. In the Food Quality Protection Act, Congress instructed the EPA to rectify this, but so far the agency has largely failed.The regulations also neglect to account for multiple exposures to pesticides that have a common mechanism of toxicity. Dursban, for example, is just one of dozens of commonly used pesticides - including at least seventeen that the EPA has registered for residential use - that work on the nervous system in the same way. (All inhibit an enzyme called cholinesterase, which in turn interferes with nerve performance.)In other words, the EPA's current regulations are analogous to a drunk driving law that allowed two bottles of Budweiser, two of Heineken, and two shots of Wild Turkey per hour, but prohibited three of Budweiser. "Your body doesn't recognize brand names," says Jacqueline Hamilton of NRDC. "So EPA should stop pretending that each exposure occurs in a vacuum."Dow: Dursban Is SafeMeanwhile, Dow insists that low-level exposure to Dursban is safe. The company argues that restrictions more stringent than the ones that the EPA has used for years are not warranted. "Thirty-six hundred studies and reports have been compiled on Dursban," says Dow spokesperson Garry Hamlin. "The weight of those studies shows that an extra safety margin is not warranted because they show that children are not more sensitive than adults."Critics counter that many of the studies Dow cites are funded and controlled by the company. Indeed, nearly all of the scientists Dow offers to back its claims have "worked with" Dow, as Hamlin puts it. And NRDC points out that several of the studies that Dow submitted to the EPA actually show that Dursban could destroy nerve tissue in the fetus, reason enough for the agency to apply strict standards.EPA's Dismal Track RecordGiven the evidence, why has the EPA compromised on Dursban?An EPA spokesperson told that the agency prefers to let its 1,000 page assessment of Dursban speak for itself, and declined to make any statements while its proposed decision is under review.Critics say that the EPA's refusal to take strong action is just the most egregious of many examples that prove the agency is surrendering to the pesticide industry. Despite the Food Quality Protection Act - which Congress passed unanimously - Americans are hardly better off, they say."Americans were not protected from pesticides before Food Quality Protection Act, they're still not protected, and they won't be until EPA fully implements the statute," says Jay Feldman, the executive director of Beyond Pesticides in Washington, D.C. "The agency is under a lot of pressure from the pro-pesticide lobby to maintain the status quo, and [from politicians] to minimize the effect on conventional agricultural systems," he says.In defense of the EPA, one veteran government scientist pointed out that "Congress is very careful about giving the EPA just enough [money] to register pesticides, but not enough to look into the chronic effects of pesticides on human populations." The scientist says that studies from the Government Accounting Office confirm this allegation.So far, though limited action was taken against two of the most dangerous pesticides in 1999, the EPA has mainly declined to apply the stringent protections called for under the Act. For example, the agency only imposed the children's safety factor mandated by the Act in about 10 percent of the first ninety-one pesticide decisions, according to NRDC's Wallinga.Public health advocates say the NRDC's lawsuits over the years helped pressure the agency to enforce long-neglected pesticide statutes. Recently, NRDC, in cooperation with the United Farm Workers and other California-based organizations, filed another suit to compel the agency to take action.In 1996 Congress ordered the EPA to regulate the riskiest pesticide uses first. The plaintiffs insist that the EPA failed to do so. Instead, the agency cleaned up its books, ruling on pesticides that often posed little danger to public health. "Out of nearly 3,300 pesticide actions for which EPA claims credit, fewer than a dozen will have any effect on the level of pesticide in your food," says NRDC's Jacqueline Hamilton.Others agree. "Nearly all the pesticides the EPA regulated before the August 1999 deadline were no longer in use anyway," says Todd Hettenbach of the Environmental Working Group. "If you eat goat meat or horse innards, EPA took action to protect you. But so far the government has sided with the pesticide lobby to keep pesticides on food that kids eat every day, like apples, peaches and pears."EPA denies this, claiming that "most of the reassessments completed are for pesticides in our highest priority group, those that appear to pose the greatest risk to public health."Victims' TestimonyMichael Eash is hardly unique among the poisoned. According to Poison Control Center data submitted to the EPA, Dursban accounts for about 7,000 calls and 1,100 poisonings per year. That's probably only a fraction of the actual number of people affected, however. According to EPA epidemiologist Jerry Blondell, one study found that three-quarters of emergency room cases are not reported to Poison Control Centers, and chronic exposures, like Michael Eash's, are often neither reported (Michael's wasn't) nor diagnosed.Another factor that skews the statistics -- and plays a major role in helping corporations avoid lawsuits -- is that, according to the EPA, "Many physicians lack knowledge" of pesticide poisonings. Few victims ever get the special tests needed to prove that they've been poisoned because many doctors don't know that they exist.The EPA docket includes items such as an email from one nine-year old, who writes, "I was poisoned by Dursban when I was 4. My life has been really affected by pesticides. When I am exposed to any pesticides I go into seeshers [sic: meaning seizures]. Sometimes I don't stop for weeks ... My life is terrible because of pesticides. Please take them off the market."Dursban provokes some people to declare war on the pesticide. Ms. Eash, for one, gave up her pharmacology career to run a loosely organized and self-funded coalition that fights pesticide use and helps other victims.Jacob Berkson, a retired Maryland state legislator and former deputy general counsel for the General Services Administration, was poisoned in 1988 after workers failed to seal holes in his house's foundation that had been filled with Dursban to treat termites.The experience, he says, forever changed his life. For months he suffered from chronic nerve gas symptoms. He was so sick that he and his wife had to take three days to drive two hundred and fifty miles to a daughter's wedding. Years later when he recovered enough to work again, he wrote and self-published a book about his experience. He dedicates much of his time these days to helping other victims of Dursban.Some say that the chemical literally drives them from their homes. Berkson lived in a tent for a few weeks, and later bought an RV so that he no longer needed to drive to the YMCA to use the toilet. Connie Kille, age fifty, of New Jersey, who suffered from "a burning nerve pain" for two years after her home was treated for termites, tried living in a ventilated, filtered foil room in her family's attic for a few months. She hasn't been able to move back home since 1994.The victims also report developing what's known as "multiple chemical sensitivity" -- a strong reaction to a variety of chemicals, from pesticides and industrial cleaners to cigarette smoke, perfume, vegetables grown with pesticides, even vinyl and plastics -- that induces strong symptoms similar to the initial poisoning. "Industry's view on multiple chemical sensitivity is simply that it doesn't exist," that these people have a phobia, a psychological fear of chemicals, says the EPA's Blondell. But he and other scientists say there's growing evidence that industry is wrong.One victim, who requested anonymity due to a pending lawsuit, says that though nearly a decade has passed since he was poisoned in his workplace, he still struggles with a chemical sensitivity so severe that he can barely leave his home. Nor can he live with his wife; the chemical odors she brings home after a day at her office spark debilitating allergic reactions.What does Dow AgroSciences say about these cases? That Dursban could not be the culprit. "All the information that we have show that [Dursban] simply cannot cause those types of [long-term] effects," says Dow spokesperson Garry Hamlin. The company concedes that misuse of Dursban can lead to acute poisonings, but says that only in extreme circumstances can the pesticide harm human health over the long-term. "Unless you're exposed to [Dursban] at lethal levels -- in other words, unless you drink from the bottle -- this is a product that doesn't cause long-term chronic effects," says Hamlin.Of course, Dow is eager to defend its ability to market a pesticide that grosses hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In 1995, the company was fined $876,000 for the belated reporting of hundreds of cases of suspected long-term injury from Dursban; Dow says the fine resulted from a misinterpretation of the law. Last year, in an effort to defend Dursban, Dow commissioned MDS Harris to feed the pesticide to thirty-six paid volunteers in Nebraska, who were then studied for several days. Such human testing is legal, but critics say that unlike medical testing, which may benefit the patient, feeding a nerve agent to a subject is ethically dubious and scientifically irrelevant.Dow's position that Dursban is benign except in larger doses is "biological madness," according to the University of Pittsburgh's Needleman. The scientists who support this view, he says, are just as misguided as those who for decades believed that low-level lead exposure was harmless."Organophosphates like Dursban were designed explicitly as toxins to attack the central nervous system. If a certain dose kills a brain cell, a smaller dose will definitely impair it," particularly in the brain and nervous system of children, says Needleman.Whether the EPA will ever muster the political will to safeguard Americans from pesticides still remains to be seen. Indeed, a move is afoot in Congress to weaken the 1996 law. HR 1592, sponsored by Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA), would effectively neutralize the Food Quality Protection Act. The bill, with over 190 co-sponsors, has been gaining momentum in recent weeks.In the meantime, environmentalists say Dursban remains a key battle. "If Dow AgroSciences manages to scuttle the stringent controls on Dursban it will be the pesticide lobby's biggest trophy," concludes Hettenbach. "It would mean that EPA acknowledges that they don't have the political will to make tough decisions even when the science tells them they should."David Case is a reporter for He writes about the environment for the magazine.

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