The next time you schedule a visit from the exterminator make sure you are not putting yourself and your family at risk. Earlier this year scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that Dursban, the most widely used pesticide in the country, is considered unsafe for all home uses. The pesticide, which works by attacking the nervous system of insects, also poses risks for humans.
"I would absolutely recommend that parents do not use products containing Dursban," says Todd Hettenbach, a pesticide policy analyst with Environmental Working Group in Washington D.C. "There have been indications for quite a while that there were problems."
Organophosphate pesticides like Dursban were developed in Germany in the late 1930s and acquired by the Nazis as prospective weapons during World War II. Dursban was originally marketed by Dow Chemical to kill mosquitoes. It is now used in over 1,000 products to kill termites, fleas, cockroaches, and other pests. It is used in homes, schools and hospitals, as well as on crops. A recent test of 1,000 Americans found that 82 percent had its residue in their urine. A Minnesota study found the bug killer at detectable levels in over 90 percent of school children examined.
High levels of exposure to chlorpyrifos, the chemical marketed as Dursban, may cause dizziness, abdominal pain, and a slow heartbeat. Very high doses may result in unconsciousness or death.
"Children are more likely than adults to be affected by the chemical for a variety of reasons," Hettenbach explains. "First of all their nervous system is still developing, so it is more sensitive. Second, kids spend more time crawling on the floor and mouthing things. They also eat a much less varied diet, and they eat more per body weight than adults." In fact between 1993 and 1996, chlorpyrifos was suspected in more than 8,000 incidents involving children under six that were reported to poison control centers.
In 1995, Joshua Herb, a five-year-old paraplegic, received a multi-million dollar settlement from Dow Chemical. His paralysis was apparently caused by high level exposure to chlorpyrifos mixed with a second chemical in utero. In 1994, Christie and A.J. Ebling of New Albany, Indiana developed seizures, incontinence and learning disabilities after their apartment was repeatedly sprayed with Dursban.
"High dose exposures can be problematic,: says Dr. Robin Whyatt assistant professor of clinical public health at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health. "The question is: are there any long-term effects from chronic exposure to chlorpyrifos during fetal development?"
This is one of the questions the FDA hopes to answer this spring when its review of Dursban is finalized. The current review has been prompted by the Food Quality and Protection Act (FQPA) which was passed in 1996 to reexamine hundreds of pesticides to make sure they are safe for children. While the FQPA is applauded for its rigorous standards protecting children, many criticize pesticide manufacturers for slowing down its implementation.
"The pesticide and chemical industry has fought the ban of Dursban every step of the way. They have put pressure on Vice President Gore and EPA administrator Carol Browner. There is now an effort by Congress to take out some of the most important parts of the FQPA," says Roshelle Davis, executive director of Generation Green - an organization which works to insure that parents have an effective voice in public policy so that children can grow up toxic free.
Carol Browner has heard from the pesticide industry and agribusiness. Now she needs to hear from parents and consumers. Most parents don't even have a clue that these types of debates are going on," says Davis.
Dow Agrosciences now earns more than $100 million a year from the sale of Dursban. Dow Chemical has 51 lobbyists at the federal level and spends millions each year to wield influence on public policy.
The current EPA review may result in the ban of Dursban for certain uses, but for now the pesticide is still on the market. The following recommendations for preventing accidental poisoning are suggested by the Office of Pesticide Programs: - Always store pesticides away from children's reach in a locked cabinet; - Read the directions first and follow the directions to the letter; - Before applying pesticides, remove children and their toys as well as pets from the area; - If your use of a pesticide is interrupted (perhaps by a phone call), properly reclose the package and be sure to leave the container out of the reach of children; - Never transfer pesticides to other containers that children may associate with food or drink; - Teach children that "pesticides are poisons" - something they should not touch.
For additional information: National Pesticide Telecommunications Network: 1-800-8585.