Life in a Fog

Did a dose of pesticides ruin a Denver family's health?

After that, it was arranged that Kauffman would come back on March 28 to take care of the bugs. He testified that he was told to handle the couple "with kid gloves."

"These people were calling us and just stirring up all kinds of trouble," Kauffman said, "and...I said, 'Well, tell them next time they want their unit treated to prepare it [by hiding or removing perishables and food-preparation items]. They wouldn't have these problems."

When Kauffman showed up in the late morning of March 28, he and Ralya argued about what was to be sprayed. Finally, Kauffman testified, Ralya told him to go ahead and spray, that she was leaving.

And that was the start of real headaches for everyone involved.

What was sprayed in the apartment that day? All sides agree that three chemicals were used, but they don't agree on exactly what was used where. Kauffman testified that he did not spray the bedroom with the chemicals Ficam D or Tempo 2EC, but traces of both were found on the bedroom mirror and on the pillowcases.

Nolan and Ralya say the spraying that day was overkill. "The treatment he put into our apartment obviously was not necessary," Nolan says. "He went in there to check for roaches, to flush them out. He didn't have any results from the flushing results, but he continued to apply it."

Ficam D contains a chemical called bendiocarb and belongs to one of the more toxic classes of insecticides, called carbamates, says Dr. Diane Niedzwiecki, a toxicologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Depending on the intensity of exposure, and the susceptibility of individual people, the effects of Ficam D can be far-ranging. Mild poisoning can lead to gastrointestinal problems like nausea and diarrhea as well as excessive sweating, blurred vision, headaches and difficulty breathing.

According to data from the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center, from April through June of this year there were 6,139 exposures to carbamate-based pesticides nationwide; 1,184 required health-care treatment. For carbamates mixed with other pesticides, the figures drop, respectively, to 1,318 and 232.

"People who already have asthma or other respiratory problems may be more likely to be affected earlier than someone who doesn't," says Niedzwecki, adding that the symptoms usually don't occur at the same time and don't persist very long, because Ficam breaks down in the body relatively quickly. "Ficam is one of your weaker pesticides, your lesser pesticides," Kauffman testified. If a person breathed it, he said, the effect would "probably be like breathing pollen. Probably make you sneeze." Yet when asked if he wore a respirator when applying Ficam, Kauffman replied, "I would have definitely used one...because I'm concerned about my health."

The two other pesticides found in the apartment--Tempo 2EC and Whitmire 565 PT Plus XLO--belong to a class of chemicals called pyrethroids, a synthetic version of a naturally occurring chemical produced by the chrysanthemum flower. Both are less toxic than Ficam, says Niedzwiecki.

But pesticides contain more than just those chemicals. Environmental Protection Agency regulations require the listing of "active ingredients"--those that, according to the 1972 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, "prevent, destroy, repel or mitigate any pest." There's a whole other category of ingredients called "inert ingredients," which are defined simply as "any pesticide ingredient other than an active ingredient." According to Beyond Pesticides, a publication put out jointly by the Washington Toxics Coalition and the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, most over-the-counter products consist of 90 percent inert ingredients, many of which have their own harmful side effects and many of which are used as active ingredients in other pesticides.

Ralya, Nolan and Ryan moved out of their apartment, but they say their health did not improve. In October 1994, they traveled to Dallas--on a trip arranged by their attorney--for examination at the private Environmental Health Center, perhaps the most controversial environmental-illness facility in the country. There they found some support for their claims of heightened sensitivity to chemicals.

They were each given one test a day for five days in what Ralya describes as a "bizarre room, the size of a stand-up telephone booth." The tests were double-blind, meaning neither the patients nor the physicians knew whether the chemicals placed in the booth were placebos or chemicals likely to produce a reaction.

The tests revealed that Nolan and Ralya showed sensitivity to the three "live" chemicals used: an unnamed pesticide, ethanol and toluene.

According to depositions, their Environmental Health Center physician, Dr. Alfred Johnson, was expected to testify that all three suffered from "chemical sensitivity and...residual symptoms." But Johnson's testimony was scrubbed by the court.

A Denver doctor who examined the family on behalf of the defendants disagreed sharply with the Dallas center's findings. According to his report, Philip S. Guzelian, a professor of medical toxicology and gastroenterology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, found "no medical or scientific basis upon which to conclude that the Nolan family's claimed medical conditions are the result of chemically-mediated toxicity stemming from Kauffman Pest Control's use of pesticidal products in their apartment in March of 1994."

Is there such a syndrome as "multiple chemical sensitivity"? The confusion surrounding MCS is so great that people don't even agree on what to call it. While most use MCS, a term coined in the mid-Eighties, others call it environmental hypersensitivity disorder, total allergy syndrome, toxic response syndrome, ecological illness, environmental illness, twentieth-century disease and even chemical AIDS. This past February panelists from several countries meeting in Berlin recommended a new name: idiopathic environmental intolerances.

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