Va. County Shrugs as Mother, Daughters Get Caught in Chemical Spray Blowback
Thursday, June 09, 2011
By Press Action
Imagine walking down a neighborhood sidewalk with your young children on a beautiful late spring morning. You come to the end of the block and prepare to turn the corner when you hear a noise that sounds like an electric lawnmower. You make the turn, perhaps expecting to see a team of landscapers or a neighbor mowing his lawn. Instead, you’re caught off-guard by two men wearing full coverage suits and breathing apparatuses spraying chemicals all over a neighbor’s yard. Without any warning, you and your children find yourselves walking in the blowback of a chemical-laden spray.
That’s what happened to Kate Pemberton on June 7 as she was walking with her daughters through a residential neighborhood of Arlington County, Va., after dropping off her older child at school.
“How is it acceptable that my girls and I, who are innocently walking in our neighborhood, with no warning find ourselves walking in the blowback of chemical laden spray?” she wrote in an email message to her neighborhood association’s listserv. Pemberton gave Press Action permission to publish passages from her email about the incident.
As large numbers of mosquitoes return to Arlington and the entire Washington, D.C., region with the warmer temperatures, residents are trying to find ways to enjoy the outdoors without getting bitten. Some homeowners and businesses resort to calling companies to come spray chemical pesticides in their yards. On this particular day, one of Pemberton’s neighbors had arranged for a company called Mosquito Squad to exterminate mosquitoes through a process that “fogs” the homeowner’s yard.
Mosquito Squad is spraying permethrin, a synthetic version of pyrethrin, according to Pemberton. “This is an indiscriminate neurotoxin that affects everything it comes in contact with in air, water, soil,” she wrote. “Neurotoxins mess with the way that nerves in the brain function and are meant to KILL the creatures they come in contact with. They aren’t going to affect a human as drastically as a mosquito, purely based on weight, but they aren’t by any stretch safe. There are no acceptable limits for human or ecosystem health (dangers to nerves, development, chromosomes, hormone system, cancer-causing, and more acutely toxic to children). The permethrin used by Mosquito Squad is specifically made to resist breakdown in sunlight so it lasts for weeks after spraying.”
People are affected by neurotoxins, as are pets, wildlife, beneficial insects, Pemberton explained. This is one of the chemicals at fault for the decline of the honeybee population. It settles in soil and rushes away with run-off water into larger aquatic ecosystems. The aquatic life that isn’t killed outright by very low dose concentrations experience mutations that affect the larger population, she said, adding that it causes lung and liver tumors in mammals in lab studies.
“Knowing all this, I don’t think I should have to worry about chemicals like this being sprayed on my kids while I walk through the neighborhood, nevermind the residue that washes around the area and wafts in the air after spraying,” Pemberton said. “Can people really believe that this stuff is safe for your family and your neighbors when the guys who apply it are required to wear full body covering and breathing apparatus?”
Pemberton said she believes people have the right to make choices that affect their own families, even to their detriment. But “no one has a right to poison me, my family, a neighborhood, or the larger ecosystem. Your rights end at your property line and this stuff does not,” she said.
Arlington County: Sorry, We Can’t Help You
Equally disturbing as a mother and her daughters getting hit by the blowback of a chemical-laden spray is the reaction of Arlington County employees when Pemberton phoned to report the incident. A person in the county’s environmental health services office told her there was nothing he could do and suggested she contact code enforcement. And how did Arlington County’s code enforcement office respond? “Code enforcement has told me that there is nothing in the county code to protect us from this so they cannot act,” she said.
Pemberton wants Arlington to take responsibility for the health of its residents and the environment through regulations, bans and laws “so that my neighbors can no longer make certain ill informed choices about chemicals that WILL affect their neighbors, human and other.” Most of the harm caused by Mosquito Squad and similar companies “isn’t going to be known until our children find out about their own unexplained illnesses years from now and the biodiversity that used to exist around us no longer exists,” she said.
Other jurisdictions in North America, such as Quebec, have banned many of the chemicals that are still legal across most of the United States. Quebec’s Pesticides Management Code, which took effect in April 2003, sets strict standards to control the use and sale of pesticides. The regulation aims at limiting the harmful effects of pesticides on human health and on the environment.
For example, Quebec has prohibited the use of certain pesticides on the lawns of public, semi-public and municipal properties and, since April 2006, on the lawns of private and commercial properties, except for golf courses, according to the province’s website. The province also has prohibited the use of certain pesticides on the lawns of private and commercial green spaces. Quebec also prohibits the use of almost all pesticides inside and outside child care centers and elementary and secondary schools, and specific rules must be observed when using authorized pesticides.
The golf course loophole in the Quebec regulations is a major one. One need only look at what happened in Arlington almost 10 years ago for proof.
In August 2001, pest-killing chemicals washed off the Washington Golf & Country Club into the Donaldson Run and Gulf Branch streams near the campus of Marymount University in north Arlington, killing scores of fish and other aquatic life. The two streams feed into the Potomac River. Other than paying $2,406 to Arlington County for the cost of sending a hazardous materials team to the scene, the country club did not face other fines or penalties from the county, Steve Dryden, a spokesman for the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, Md., told the Washington Post in an article published Aug. 22, 2002, a year after the incident.
Heavy rains flushed a brand of soil fumigant the golf course used to kill insects, weeds and fungi into the two streams around Aug. 23, 2001. The spill, detected by stream monitors trained by the Audubon Naturalist Society, killed fish, eels, crayfish and other aquatic life.
The country club did face an investigation by the federal government. The two streams flow through property owned by the National Park Service. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got involved when it learned that migratory fish—in this case eels—were affected by the chemical runoff.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice entered a consent decree with the country club, on behalf of the U.S. Department of the Interior. In the consent decree, the federal government alleged the release of the soil fumigant Dazomet, and hazardous substances resulting from Dazomet’s breakdown, including methyl isothiocyanate, “resulted in significant injury to the aquatic ecosystems of Donaldson Run and Gulf Branch, including substantial mortality of fish and American eels and virtual elimination of smaller aquatic organisms immediately downstream of the release.”
The consent decree required the country club to conduct restoration and pay compensation “for alleged injuries and losses to natural resources and to park system resources, and to visitors in the use of the park system.” Period, end of story. No criminal charges were brought against Washington Golf & Country Club or its officers by any governmental entity.
In the Aug. 22, 2002, Washington Post article, Thomas Junker, the country club’s president at the time, was quoted as saying: “In our view, it was an act of God.” The country club argued it had no way of knowing that a rainstorm would flush the chemicals downstream, killing scores of fish and aquatic life.
For the country club to use the “act of God” defense in this case was the ultimate example of hubris. And now 10 years later, little, if anything, has changed in how chemical pesticides are regulated. The Arlington County government’s claim of powerlessness when Kate Pemberton contacted it to complain about the chemical spraying in her neighborhood was a perfect illustration of this lack of progress.
“It is a huge issue for me and I wish more people cared about it,” Pemberton said.
© Press Action