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Trouble underfoot 

Children develop leukemia three to nine times more often when pesticides are used around their home; brain tumors and other cancers in children have been linked with exposures to insecticides. ...
-- The EPA Children's Environmental Health Yearbook

Twelve years ago, Sophia Metcalf packed up her four kids, divorce papers and a new accounting degree and drove out of Iowa. Florida lured, a perfect place for a woman who could knock off 100-lap swims and five-mile runs with ease.

That was then.

That was then.

Today, because of what she blames as pesticide treatments and poor ventilation at the Orlando building where she worked until 1995 as a state tax auditor, Metcalf is debilitated by reactive airway disease. Gone are simple pleasures: No more rhythmic strokes through cool water. No more runs. No cookouts, fireworks, church or any activities in closed environments. Her life is, in a word, shattered.

"In the end," she says, "state officials refused to test the place `for poisons`, although they knew toxic chemicals were used there. They did, however, approve compensation and set me up with a home office."

Dr. Marion Moses is a California occupational medicine specialist. For 30 years she has investigated health problems from pesticide exposure and is not surprised by Metcalf's story. "Chemical sensitivity can occur in anybody at any time, without prior problems and without warning," she says. In hair-that-broke-the-camel's-back fashion, the trigger may be either a combination of the many pesticides we encounter every day, or an accumulation of a single pesticide from sources that range from agricultural sprays to the chemicals used to keep lawns and playgrounds pretty.

"Chronic exposure means continuing, low-level exposure over time," says Moses. "It may or may not be every day, but overall it is steady. In ... structures that are treated on a regular basis with conventional pesticides, inside or out, there is exposure to neurotoxins, genotoxins and carcinogens."

Adds Dr. Gary Lee, of Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center: "We in Florida get exposed to more pesticides than any other state in the nation. ... Yet we're very ignorant of their impact."

Still, evidence shows that reproductive and respiratory diseases, as well as certain cancers, are on the rise. "Much of the blame," says Moses, "goes to the feet of toxic chemicals."

When Florida was found to release more toxins than any other state, in part due to the amount of the chemical compound atrazine applied to South Florida cane crops by U.S. Sugar, the corporation howled and produced a report that proclaimed the chemical as safe as mineral oil.

"Wishful thinking," says Moses. A 1997 EPA evaluation still stands: Atrazine alters estrogen in the body, is a possible human carcinogen and is a leading contaminant of America's drinking water. Most of Europe has banned its use.

And it's not just agriculture that is responsible for the trouble underfoot.

The latest U.S. Geological Survey report says pesticides applied by the pest-control industry in urban areas in Florida are a major source of surface-, ground- and marine-water contamination. Florida is home to 15,105 licensed pest-control operators, plus 3,281 pest-control businesses. Yet "all the unlicensed people running around in their pickups doing yard work" leads to "major abuse," says a spokesperson for the state Bureau of Etymology and Pest Control. "They aren't supposed to be putting down anything but fertilizer, but we know what's happening, and it's a big problem."

Even public agencies that know of safe solutions aren't sweeping in their response.

At Orange County Public Schools, for example, "We minimize any use of chemicals whenever possible, and take that very seriously," says Bob Higgin, supervisor of grounds, landscaping and pesticides for the district. On playgrounds, however, he reports "limited use of RoundUp," a favorite pesticide that causes tumors, cancer and birth defects in lab animals and is irritating to human eyes, skin and the upper-respiratory tract.

A partial list of chemicals applied to athletic fields includes: atrazine; Talstar, which can cause respiratory and other problems and becomes even more toxic when used on the same grounds as Acephate Pro 75, a pesticide used by the county; and 2,4-D, a major ingredient in Agent Orange that has been outlawed in several regional park districts around the country.

The popular Cady Way Park offers still another example of the threat. "Now, the ball field we spray with 2,4-D to keep weeds out of the Bermuda," says Ernie Manning, supervisor of the parks maintenance department for the city of Winter Park. "If there's mole crickets, we use Dursban, Orthene or Oftanol" -- product names for organophosphates that inhibit a vital nervous-system enzyme. (An EPA review says Dursban "has been reported to be associated with chronic effects in humans, including chronic neurobehavioral effects and the development of sensitivities to previously tolerated chemicals.")

Manning adds: "We use two or three different types of chemical because it's hard to kill 'em. We do it every seven to 14 days. Actually we don't get rid of them, just put them to rest for a while."

Moses again: "The problem," she says, "is that Floridians love chemicals, and there is no strong presence in the state for their education and protection regarding pesticide dangers."

When hundreds of Florida residents reported health problems after repeated aerial spraying for medflies in 1997 and 1998, the blame went to malathion -- an insecticide with at least 40 known health hazards and which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may re-categorize as a low-level carcinogen. There are even pending lawsuits based on the premise of chemical trespass.

Recently, political events cocked eyebrows in some malathion-sprayed circles: While Vice President Gore was massaging the Chinese into an agreement to buy U.S. produce with assurances they'd never suffer stowaway medflies, in Tallahassee two bills concerning public health and malathion were married. The measures -- still to be resolved by the Florida Legislature -- set ground rules for future spraying and create a task force dominated by agribusiness interests to monitor the need. Meanwhile, President Clinton was announcing a $29 million plan to research and combat invasive foreign species on U.S. soil.

"One doesn't have to invoke conspiracy theories to explain it: A very comfortable agro-chemical industry out there is making lots of money," says Moses. "One reason they fight so hard to keep malathion and other toxic pesticides on the market here is to protect their foreign markets."

Andy Levine, executive vice president of Florida Citrus Mutual, an industry association, says nothing in the Chinese agreement promised that malathion would be used to protect fruit exported to China. But this year Japan did push Florida to spray medflies with malathion, even though its use in that country was outlawed when studies showed it causes eye disease.

Southwest Florida, where most malathion spraying took place, is home to several groups that work for pesticide-use reform, organizations inspired by incidents like that which befell 12-year-old Adam Rink, known as "Big Foot" to his admiring soccer teammates. In 1997, he'd just been drafted to a competitive traveling team when he was exposed to four malathion aerial assaults and eight weeks of ground saturation at his home.

"He vomited after the first spraying, then just kept getting sicker," says his mother Kathy, a registered nurse. She reported his illness to the Department of Health, but nothing stopped the malathion application. His rapid deterioration continued: loss of appetite and weight; change in hair color and complexion; exhaustion that caused him to sleep straight through some days. His bones felt heavy.

Suspecting acute leukemia, a doctor referred him to an oncologist for bone-marrow extraction. "After 20 minutes," says Kathy Rink, "the doctor came out confounded and said that while he found no abnormal cells, my son's blood was empty of white cells, and that he could not identify the problem."

But an Arizona occupational medicine specialist, in Florida for a lecture, nailed the diagnosis. "He said, ‘It's chemical, get him out of the environment.'"

It was not a sunny summer for the boy, who never left his house. While intense immune-system therapy has mostly restored his health, Big Foot can never play soccer again.

Cases like Adam's are part of the reason Ann Mason co-chairs Sarasota's Coalition to Stop Children's Exposure to Pesticides, a project of Moses' Pesticide Education Center in San Francisco. Another reason is that she has suffered chronic, life-threatening conditions since an outdoor chemical was sprayed on the belongings in her real-estate office closet.

"Vapor drift of lawn chemicals poses the greatest threat," she says. "As pesticides break down, they enter homes blocks away through cracks, crevices, windows and doors. They're there for years -- on carpets, clothes, even children's toys."

A leukemia cluster in Sarasota is thought to be linked to pesticide residue. Although his study looked only at radium-contaminated ground water caused by phosphate leeching from the Bartow mines, Lyman, of Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, acknowledges the need to study a larger population over a longer period of time. "Unfortunately," he says, "to convince the population that we need change will take a disaster and a significant amount of public funds."

In the Sarasota area, the coalition has succeeded in getting two parks converted to pesticide-free zones, secured safe pesticide use inside public schools and buildings, and replaced pesticides with natural products -- indoors and out -- at two hospitals. Additionally, a pilot program is comparing the condition of two organically treated ball parks and two that continue chemical applications.

Dr. Moses, whose book "Designer Poisons: How to Protect Your Health and Home from Toxic Pesticides" is like a blast from a wake-up bugle, is well acquainted with Florida's pesticide habits. "I am deeply concerned, for example, about what's happening at Port St. Lucie, where a brain-cancer cluster in children has been linked to home chemical use," she says.

Indeed, the National Cancer Institute is urgently looking for answers to the spike in childhood cancers, an unprecedented 8,500 new cases a year. "It's likely that environmental factors -- from a child's food to the substances she touches and the air she breathes -- are playing a significant role in the rise," Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, co-author of "Raising Children Toxic Free," told The Green Guide, a consumer guide that focuses on the environment.

Because their organs are immature and their systems developing rapidly, children quickly absorb chemicals to which they're exposed; that same physiology makes for slow breakdown and passage of the chemicals from their bodies.

Children lie, sit and crawl on contaminated surfaces; they engage in constant hand-to-mouth behavior, ingesting contaminated dust and dirt. Their breathing zone is closer to where pesticides are applied.

Not even the womb guarantees protection. If a mother is exposed to neurotoxic compounds during the prenatal period of brain development -- even at levels deemed safe for her -- permanent loss of brain function may occur in her baby.

A growing number of researchers are concerned that there is no such thing as a safe level of toxic-chemical residue for children. Responding to unsettling findings by the National Academy of Science three years earlier, in 1996 Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act, which requires rigorous evaluation of all sources of human pesticide exposure, particularly when determining health risks to children. An EPA reassessment of at least 10,000 pesticides must be completed by 2006.

"I've cared about this problem for a long, long time," says Gary Henderson, who advertises his Garrett Pest Management as "holistic pest control."

Henderson, who has 20 years in the business, revised his methods when a Miami food co-op asked for alternatives. He reflects a change that's been slowly filtering into the industry: integrated pest management, which focuses on prevention through nonchemical means, and which applies chemical compounds -- of the least toxic sort -- as a last resort.

First, says Henderson, "What I do is look at the whole house, what we can do to manipulate the environment, such as exclusion, creating a physical barrier so bugs can't get in" -- for example, closing that half-inch hole the phone company drilled. "Then we modify the environment, especially removing moisture sources; crack the water problem" -- leaky spigot? sprinkler watering the house? -- "and you'll change the habitat to one that's going to support a much lower insect population."

Other preventives use common sense: Keep garbage in sealed containers, stash pet food, never leave out food or dirty dishes. "There's no dazzle in telling somebody to cut a branch where it hangs over the roof, or to caulk," he says.

And if hard-core chemical control is required? Henderson uses pyrethrum, a botanical insecticide made from a chrysanthemum grown in Kenya. Pyrethrum is a low-toxicity compound not to be confused with synthetic pyrethroids (such as the brand names Capture, Tampo, Demon and Flee) touted by chemical companies as safe, but which in some compounds are quite toxic to humans, birds and fish.

There's belief that a pesticide has been tested for human safety if it's sold over-the-counter or used by chemical-treatment companies. Not so. The EPA regulates home pesticides based only on acute poisoning, according to the Pesticide Education Center, which advises: "There are no regulations based on potential long-term or chronic effects -- effects that may be invisible for years."

The safest alternatives are biocontrols and baits (such as Avert, Magnet Roach Food, Logic and FirstLine), which interrupt an insect's vital life functions. A few are slightly toxic to humans if ingested, but doses are low and accessible only through bait. Insecticidal dust (Bonide, Drax, Drione) causes insects to dry out; although not toxic, dusts irritate lungs and shouldn't be inhaled.

Foggers and aerosols are the most hazardous, says the center, which recommends they never be used; liquid products are potentially less hazardous, but they still cause widespread contamination because of drift.

Harvey Massey, owner of Massey Services Inc. of Orlando, says he had his own epiphany a few years ago. "I told `my managers` that the world is changing, and while I don't have scientific evidence that any of my customers or workers have been harmed, I said we can't continue the old way. We've stopped using organophosphates. In the lawn business, what we do now is spot application, mostly of pyrethroids. No more broadcasting."

While Sophia Metcalf has her compensation battle behind her, some of her co-workers are still on the litigation treadmill, some settled out of court, some quit and some suffer in silence for fear of losing their job.

Moses says, "Human health should be protected from widespread pesticide use by immediately stopping the use of the most poisonous ones. We cannot justify their use. We know enough; we don't need more research. Industry says it would increase production costs too much. That's a scare tactic. They say the world would starve or die of disease. That's blackmail; the opposite is the truth."


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