The Real Pests?

Joe Crozier and Yvette Maiangowi thought that, like many other Americans, they were simply developing seasonal allergies. Within months of moving into their Arizona home, the symptoms began: asthma, headaches and fatigue. Worst affected was four-year-old James: He ground his teeth at night and vomited frequently.

“At first we thought these [problems] were caused by pollens, molds or dust,” says Crozier. The family replaced the ventilation system, cleaned carpets and disinfected walls and ceilings. The symptoms grew worse. An area doctor finally diagnosed them with pesticide poisoning. Over 785 gallons of pesticides had been sprayed in their home by a previous owner, they later learned, including 370 gallons of Dursban, a compound banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this past June.

Dursban is the most widely used insecticide to date—between 15 and 24 million pounds have been used each year, two to four million pounds in the home and garden. One thousand cases of poisoning are reported annually, with such symptoms as nausea, headaches and dizziness. Lack of treatment could pose long-term damage to the nervous system, says Jay Feldman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Beyond Pesticides.

The EPA’s ban resulted from tests proving that Dursban, also known as chlorpyrifos and Lorsban, causes brain damage in fetal rats whose mothers were given the pesticide. Concern over children’s health prompted the EPA to restrict spraying of Dursban on popular produce, in particular apples, grapes and tomatoes.

But while the ban phases out retail use of Dursban, critics like Feldman argue it’s not enough. “All high exposures should have been eliminated immediately,” Feldman says. Instead, retail sale of the chemical will be allowed until the end of 2002. (Wal-Mart agreed to remove all chlorpyrifos products by October.) Spraying under new home foundations will continue legally until the end of 2005. Dursban will be allowed indefinitely at non-residential areas like golf courses, and will remain an agricultural pesticide.

But other chemicals of similar toxicity will replace it, warns Feldman. The compound is one of 37 organophosphates, pesticides that attack the nervous system. Dursban is registered in more than 88 countries and is an ingredient in products like Ortho Home Pest Control and Black Flag Liquid Roach and Ant Killer. Elin Miller, vice president of Dow AgroSciences, stands by Dursban’s safety. “We ultimately felt we had to reach an agreement with the EPA…but this does not change our conviction in the safety of chlorpyrifos for all labeled uses.”