Pesticides or Us
by Katharine Auslander, M.E.S. 
UPdate Spring 1997

One of the major precipitating causes of environmental sensitivity seems to be exposure to a heavy dose of pesticides.  This can cause a breakdown in the immune system.  The sufferer reacts to an ever-increasing number of foods (usually favourite foods) and petrochemicals such as plastics, fragrances, natural gas, heating oil and other pesticides.

This has reportedly happened when pest control officers have used too high a dose in spraying for termites or cockroaches; when people have been in a field sprayed by planes or near a highway when pesticides were applied to the roadside.

Pat Woolchok believes her sensitivities started in the 1950’s when she frequently applied DDT to cupboards and carpets to keep insects away.  By the 1970’s she had developed a noticeable non-stop tremble.  She was a teacher but eventually the time came when she could no longer stand up in the classroom.  She discovered that she had to eliminate a number of foods to which she had become sensitive and rotate the remaining foods.  She had to give away sheets, clothes and furniture to which she reacted.  She has healed considerably in the last nine years but she still becomes violently ill when the neighbours spray with pesticides.  She experiences nausea, inability to move and “feels like a zombie”.

Pesticides are not really safe for any of us.  Pesticides are poisons and can cause damage to skin, eyes, immune systems and internal organs.  The damage can be both cumulative and acute.  Pesticides can remain stored in fat cells and lymph glands for decades and health problems can build up over a long period of time.  Some pesticides can affect the neurotransmitters in the brain immediately and this can result in vision problems, headaches, decreased reflexes, paralysis and rigidity.

Common contacts with pesticides include:  no pest strips, insect sprays, moth balls, moth proofed blankets and rugs (dry cleaners often do this automatically), treated wood (decks and foundations), non-organic food, imported fabrics, paints, varnishes, wood preservatives, and lawn sprays.

In the US, seventy million pounds of lawn pesticides are applied annually.  In some states, the department of agriculture maintains a list of people who are pesticide-sensitive.  Professional pesticide applicators are obliged to notify people on the list before spraying lawns or residences in their area.  Unfortunately, some Pest Control Associations have begun a legal challenge on whether such a medical condition really exists.

Betty Napier, a pesticide-sensitive nurse in Florida, has been so challenged.  “Even a passing encounter with a common bug spray affects her as if she has walked through a cloud of nerve gas, causing muscle spasms, nausea, disorientation.  If the wind is right, traces of malathion sprayed on a country club four miles away can drift to her home and turn her into a groggy, stumbling wreck”.

Don Black could not find such a pesticide registry in Toronto, but he knew he had to set up a system where he was notified.  His wife was very sensitive to sensitive that she had fainted after lawn spray applications on her neighbour’s property.  Don contacted the manager of each of the six pesticide companies that sprayed within four blocks of their house.  Don told them of his wife’s reactions and negotiated with each company so that they would be done at the same time.  These negotiations were fairly complicated as each home is sprayed about 5 to 8 times each season.  He found that it was important to reconfirm the dates just prior to spraying.  It took two years before this plan worked but it has continued to run smoothly for six years.

Don’s wife, Carolyn, died in 1995, but not before she made a significant contribution to the use of pesticides in Toronto.  Carolyn and Don were part of the Pesticide Action League and they worked to decrease the amount of spraying in schools and parks.  They made presentations to city officials and even picketed parks to prevent spraying.  THEY GOT RESULTS!  The Metro Toronto Parks claim that they only use 2% of the pesticides they used 6 or 7 years ago.  They spray about once a year.  The City of Toronto and North York Catholic School Boards stopped spraying within a week of their presentation.  Unfortunately, they could not influence the malls which continue to spray regularly once or twice a week.


McLeod, M., Toxic Shock

Katharine Auslander has a Masters of Environmental Studies.  She is also a freelance writer in the area of environmental health.