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Life in a Fog

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

The day was chilly, Teri Ralya recalls, when she returned to her Arvada apartment in March 1994 to air out the pesticides that had been sprayed there that morning. As she opened up all the windows in her third-story unit and switched on the stove's exhaust fan, she hoped that this latest batch of debuggers had worked. Ever since she, fiance Mike Nolan and their infant son, Ryan, had moved into the one-bedroom government-subsidized apartment the month before, they'd had problems with cockroaches.

Previous efforts to get rid of the pests had failed, and Ralya was squabbling with the management at Parkview Village Apartments and with Kauffman Pest Control, the company that routinely sprayed the complex. Ralya had had a tense confrontation with exterminator Greg Kauffman that very morning. She says he started spraying her apartment without telling her what chemicals he was using, and she'd felt compelled to grab her young son and flee.

Now it was 5 p.m., and the exterminator was gone. Ralya had left Ryan with her ex-husband, and she ventured into the apartment with the boy's flannel baby blanket held tight to her mouth.

The apartment smelled "buggy," she says. Even with all the cold air pouring in, the pesticide odor hadn't abated by the time the rest of the family returned to the apartment around midnight. They went inside anyway and went to sleep.

By morning, their lives had entered a sickly haze from which they say they may never fully emerge.

Nolan left for his job as a motorcycle mechanic with his head aching and his nose literally stuffed with Kleenex. Ryan, just a few months old, was crying and unusually cranky, his eyes puffy, a rash on one side of his face and head. Ralya, who already suffered from asthma, recalls waking up with the feeling that she'd been smacked in the head with a baseball bat. She had a nosebleed and wheezy sinuses. "I was moving in slow motion," Ralya says. "It was a funky, coma kind of day."

Even their apartment looked sickly. A sticky, opaque film covered the headboard of their bed, a dresser mirror, the sliding glass door to the porch, the bathroom mirror and some of their dishes.

Ralya and Nolan claim that exposure to the pesticides sprayed that day has left them with "multiple chemical sensitivity," a condition that has stirred considerable debate in the medical community--much of it over whether the condition even exists. MCS, as it is called, is a strong reaction to chemicals--natural and synthetic, commonplace and rare--that don't affect most people. But now, Ralya and Nolan say, everything from mold to perfume to smoke to disinfectant to pesticides bothers them, causing symptoms that range from nausea to skin rashes to headaches to fatigue. And Ryan, who already had breathing difficulties, today requires continual medication and treatment, his parents claim.

Few doubt that people like Ralya, Nolan and Ryan are sick with something. But what is it?

Those who say they suffer from MCS can exhibit an array of symptoms, and that's a real stumbling block to making a diagnosis: Many experts say there's no way to prove that a multitude of symptoms can be traced back to one chemical, or even several of them.

Mark Simon, former president of the Governor's Council for Disabilities and a self-described advocate for the disabled, calls MCS "the carpal tunnel syndrome of the Nineties. Because they look fine, because they function fine, the employer starts going, 'What the hell's going on here?'"

Simon believes that MCS exists and that the day is going to come when the condition becomes widely accepted. "Right now," he says, "the problem is this: There's a huge body of anecdotal evidence to support it, but very little empirical evidence because there's been little funding."

Much of the debate over MCS focuses on whether the symptoms originate primarily from toxic chemicals in the environment or from the mind's perception that toxic chemicals exist.

Ralya and Nolan insist that what they're suffering from isn't in their heads.

"I cannot see how a person could psychologically create a rash or psychologically create a pulmonary problem," Nolan says. "Or how a person can create a headache for themselves--there's just no way. None of us have a psychological history...that's so farfetched for them to say that."

Whatever the trigger, Nolan and Ralya have become hypersensitive to aromas. Although they don't walk around the streets wearing masks, as do some people who say they are plagued by chemicals, they are intensely curious and apprehensive about what they're breathing. During a recent excursion into an office building, they speculate that mold is present in the ventilation system. To Nolan, the atmosphere sometimes seems almost palpable. "You can taste the air in Denver just outside of Westminster," he says.

After the pesticide incident, Nolan and Ralya moved out of Parkview and bounced around several homes in the metro area. Finally they escaped Colorado's pollutants altogether this past spring by moving to Cheyenne. But before they left, they filed suit against Kauffman, El Prado Redevelopment Associates (owner of Parkview Village) and Integrated Property Management (which manages the property).

The suit was nearly settled last month for a total of $17,500, but Adams County District Judge Harlan Bockman rejected the terms of the settlement. He has ordered an independent medical evaluation of Ryan's condition. So far, the case has netted Nolan and Ralya little but a stack of bills and documents.

Nolan and Ralya have thrown out or sold most of their contaminated appliances, supplies and furniture, which they value at around $10,000. According to court documents, medical bills for Ryan were more than $4,000, and attorneys' expenses have exceeded $9,000. But they say the money's the least of their worries.

"It's difficult for us to do things the way we did," Nolan says. "We can't go and have a beer, because you can't go into a bar with smoke. We can't drink anymore. It's changed our lives completely, to the point where it's restricted us so much."

And all, they say, because their apartment was oversprayed with pesticides. "We had to play a game we didn't sign up to play," Ralya says. "This whole situation has slammed us right down into the jaws of bankruptcy, and it's like, 'How much more can we eat?'"

Their main opponent in the lawsuit, exterminator Greg Kauffman, finds it difficult to sympathize.

"I'm not happy," Kauffman says. "I wanted to go to court. These people deserve nothing. The insurance company wants to settle it, but I don't want to. There's nothing wrong with these people. No one's done anything to these people. It's a scam from the get-go. What possible motivation would I have to do this on a free job?"

Kauffman, who says Nolan and Ralya threatened him with lawsuits from the start, wrote to Parkview officials in April 1994 that "it is my conclusion that any health problems the tenants...are experiencing are unrelated to our service and are an attempt to fulfill their promise that we would be sorry."

After the March 28 spraying, Nolan and Ralya filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which conducted an investigation and sent Kauffman a warning letter urging him to be more careful in the future. No further action was taken. A warning letter, says Tonya Favinger of the agriculture department, means applicators are "not adequately meeting requirements of the law. They may be attempting to meet the requirements but not exactly fulfilling it."

Warning letters fall in the middle of the scale of actions the department can take, says Favinger. Less severe steps include dismissals of claims or "miscellaneous enforcement" letters to correct minor violations like inadequate bookkeeping. More severe actions include civil penalties (fines, probationary periods or increased education requirements), license suspensions and, ultimately, license revocation.

In fiscal year 1995, 709 licenses were issued to commercial pesticide applicators, according to the state agriculture department. Thirty-five consumer complaints were investigated during the same period, resulting in two warning letters, nine miscellaneous enforcement letters, one "assurance of discontinuance," one permanent injunction and $1,500 in civil fines.

Kauffman describes the warning letter he received as a "slap on the wrist" and adds, "If there's an inappropriate action, there's an actual stop-work order. There's a citation issued. There was absolutely no misapplication whatsoever."

In January, Nolan and Ralya's attorney, Dale Garr, told Kauffman's attorney, Raymond Connell, that his clients were willing to settle for $133,000 apiece.

But that was before an examination conducted by the couple's prime medical expert--Dr. Alfred Johnson, who diagnosed them with MCS at the Environmental Health Center in Dallas two years ago--was excluded from evidence because the court ruled it "is not based on principles generally accepted in the scientific/medical community." Johnson's testimony has been disallowed in at least three other cases, Kauffman's attorney argued.

Losing Johnson's testimony, Garr says, was a major reason the couple didn't push for a larger settlement. After that, the parties came to terms on the far more modest figure of $17,500.

But Judge Bockman, who had to review the settlement offer for Ryan because he is a minor, did not approve it and in August ordered another medical evaluation of the child, which took place last week.

Garr says Bockman "wanted an independent opinion as opposed to one driven by the litigation."

But the judge might have been persuaded by the low amount of the proposed settlement for Ryan: $2,400 after attorney's fees and costs, which is little more than half of the $4,000-plus in medical bills the child has racked up.

"The amount of money that passes hands probably crosses the judge's eyes," Garr suggests. Connell agrees. "I think [Bockman] thought because the amount is so small, he wanted to have another doctor take a look to make sure the child didn't suffer any residual effects," he says.

The judge did not return phone calls. According to his court clerk, Diana Hoffman, Bockman "wanted to make sure there's not any ongoing illness. If there is, it may or may not be a fair settlement."

In early 1994, Teri Ralya says, she and her fiance were excited about starting a new life in Denver. Ryan's nebulizer treatments for a "reactive airway" condition were down from four hours a day to an "as needed" basis, she says, and she was looking forward to going back to work that summer. She was certain Arby's would give her a job, due to the many years she'd spent in the food business.

Ralya, who had lived in Denver from 1983 to 1985, quickly noticed how the area had changed. "I could deal with the overpopulation," she says. "I could deal with the traffic. I'm looking at this big brown cloud, saying, 'I can deal with this.'"

She couldn't deal with the cockroaches, however.
Ralya says she saw roach carcasses underneath a cupboard the day she moved into Parkview Village in February 1994. When she and Nolan signed the lease a few days later, they say, they had an in-depth discussion with then-apartment manager Melaine Cotton. "If they were gonna do something, we wanted to know," Ralya says of plans to spray the apartment. "We wanted to know the preparation that needed to take place, and information about what it would do to humans."

Ralya says she told Cotton about Ryan's breathing difficulties and about her own asthma. (Cotton couldn't be reached by Westword, but in a deposition she testified that she never knew any of the family members had health concerns until after the March 28 spraying.)

Cotton agreed to take care of the bugs. So one day in mid-February the family covered up all the perishables in the kitchen cupboard and took their parakeet out of the apartment. Then the apartment complex's maintenance technician, Mitch Espinosa, entered the apartment to set off two CB-405 foggers, canisters that dispensed pesticide dust into the air.

When Ralya and Ryan returned to the apartment, however, the roaches were still there. Ralya's asthma acted up several times in the days following the fogging, she says, and she testified in depositions that it continued to bother her for about a year after that.

Ralya already knew she was sensitive to chemicals and other substances. "I knew I had problems" at eight or nine, she says, because she would break out in hives after eating strawberries. When she was a young adult living in Herington, Kansas, pesticides were sprayed on the walkway near her father's restaurant. The chemicals hit her as she walked past; Ralya says it felt like fiberglass caught in her lungs. That's an analogy she uses often.

About twelve years ago, Ralya visited a relative in Modesto, California. She stayed at a small ranch, surrounded by horses and agricultural fields. There was dust and pollen everywhere, and she thought nothing about the cropdusting planes soaring over the fields.

She started having asthma attacks there. They'd hit at night, Ralya says, but she didn't like to use inhalers because they made her lightheaded. So she'd go into the bathroom and close the door, turn the hot water on, take a heavy towel and wrap it around her face, and just "hack up into the towel." But when she almost passed out one night and had to be given a shot of adrenaline at the local hospital, she was given marching orders by a doctor: Leave Modesto.

Ten years later she was living in Arvada with her fiance and infant son, still suffering from occasional asthma attacks.

Given Ralya's asthma and allergic reactions, and Ryan's airway troubles, why did Ralya and Nolan consent to have their apartment fogged and sprayed? They say they were assured it would be absolutely safe. Cotton and Espinosa, however, testified that no assurances of "absolute safety" were ever given.

Enter Kauffman Pest Control.
According to court records, Greg Kauffman received a "qualified supervisor" license in 1991 and went into business for himself in March 1993, after a long stint working for another pesticide company.

Kauffman was on contract to Parkview Village to provide pesticide services, which usually consisted of monthly sprayings of about one-third of the apartments. Kauffman also supplied the foggers that Espinosa used in the apartment in mid-February.

After that unsuccessful fogging, Ralya refused a routine spraying of the apartment by one of Kauffman's workers. "I asked him what he was spraying," she recalls, "and he said, 'Whatever they mixed up in the canisters this morning.'"

Ralya says she replied, "Well, you're not spraying in here." And he didn't.
Nolan says they were still debating whether to move out of the apartment when Kauffman himself paid a visit a couple of weeks later, on March 16, to assess the roach situation. Not expecting him to actually spray anything, they had left food items, silverware and baby bottles out on the counter, and their parakeet--which was highly susceptible to pesticides--was still inside.

In court testimony, Kauffman insisted that he didn't spray that day.
But Ralya and Nolan say that when they came home that evening, the kitchen and bathroom floors were covered with sticky, gray-green puddles. Ralya took off her shoes to mop it up, figuring the gunk would be easier to wash off her skin than out of her shoes.

Less than a week later, she says, her feet and hands were starting to burn, and her skin began peeling off. "My feet used to be so cool," she says. "Now they look like moccasins; they look like alligator scales on the bottom."

The roaches kept on coming, mainly through the furnace closet, and Ralya and Nolan kept pestering management for some kind of solution--much to management's growing irritation, according to court testimony. Ralya acknowledges that she even went so far as to capture a cockroach in a jar and bring it to Cotton's office during lunch one day, right as the roach hatched a whole horde of babies.

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 agent...no 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.

"It's entirely possible that we're dealing with a system [the human body] that wasn't made for chemical exposures of the twentieth century," says Dr. Ken Gerdes, a member of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, which is based in Denver. "It's possible that major-league exposure damages the enzymes that are supposed to get rid of foreign chemicals." In other words, Gerdes says, overexposure to one chemical could leave someone vulnerable to ill effects from others.

However, Cindy Lynn Richard, an industrial hygienist and manager of the Maryland-based Environmental Sensitivities Research Institute (which receives funds from consumer-products companies and universities), says, "It is not reasonable to believe that many different chemicals would cause people to have the same reaction.

"All of the people who claim this disorder are not all alike," she continues. "Some don't fit the profile, so you can have somebody who doesn't buy into the belief system but they got the diagnosis and they'll run with it. Some people have invested in the belief system for a while."

People who suffer from what they call MCS "want nurturing" and "tend to react negatively to suggestions they may need behavioral therapy," says Richard. But many people on the other side of the argument claim that the medical community suffers from the same kind of denial.

"Many doctors don't feel comfortable with listening to patients," Gerdes says.

Government officials are caught in the middle. "Maybe it's psychosomatic; maybe it's real, too," says Niedzwiecki, the health department toxicologist. "I don't think anyone knows the answer."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently provided $1.2 million to build an "Ecology House" designed fr those with MCS. But the medical establishment is far from convinced that the syndrome is real. Five major organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, have ruled that MCS is at best an unsubstantiated hypothesis. That is why testimony of those who treat MCS--such as Johnson of the Dallas institute--can be more easily discarded by the courts.

"In the medical community, this diagnosis is extraordinarily controversial," Garr says. "Most medical organizations said it didn't have scientific basis. That's why he wasn't allowed to testify."

Since May, Nolan and Ralya have been renting a one-story home in a working-class neighborhood of Cheyenne. Nolan has found a job at a motorcycle shop with better ventilation, he says, than one where he worked in Englewood. Ralya says she hopes to be called for an interview with a program run by AmeriCorps called the Crime Victims Compensation Commission.

"You can either let this eat you up and wallow in your self-pity," she says, "or you can scrape it up and move on."

Inside their house, the living room is full of all sorts of plants--to increase the flow of oxygen, says Ralya. The front doors and all the windows are open, except when the Wyoming wind carries pollutants from the Frontier Refinery right over their house once or twice a day. When that happens, they close the windows.

When something bad is in the air, Ralya says, Ryan throws a fit, sometimes screaming for an hour or more, kicking and biting, and running senselessly into walls until he wears himself out or the wind changes direction.

They insist the air in Cheyenne is better than it was in Denver. Still, Ralya and Nolan exhibit a certain haunted quality, as if hidden aromas and fumes surround them wherever they go.

Ralya admits that she worries Ryan will continue to have problems as he grows older, especially when he gets to school. She wonders whether others will think he shows signs of attention deficit disorder when what he really suffers from is chemical sensitivity.

Yet in a final twist in the hazy world they live in, in court records even Dr. Alfred Johnson, the family's most supportive medical expert, recently indicated that the boy's chances for a healthy adolescence are good.

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