The Morality of Legislation – Dear Senator Lautenberg

December 9th, 2010

Dear Senator Lautenberg,

As the most recent legislator to introduce a bill on “Toxics”, I have sent your office copies of the following correspondence because you and your colleagues in Washington need to know that we, the people, are unable to safe-guard our own health from one of the most common hazards around today—modern pesticides. While these chemicals may be effective in increasing crop yields, they have still found their way into our homes, offices, hospitals, schools and every location where people gather. Current laws to assess the success or failure of moving farm chemicals into non-agricultural locations do not allow citizens and their physicians to find out if this experiment has succeeded or failed. We have no means of learning this because of restrictions keeping laboratories from developing testing panels to learn about how pesticides affect human biochemistry and influence health.

In 2002, the CDC had researchers test the bodily fluids of 3000 Americans, confirming that 70% of them had been exposed to sufficient amounts of a class of pesticides called ‘pyrethroids’, to have those by-products (metabolites) identified in their urine. How much is too much? We don’t know because physicians are unable to order the same tests performed for CDC research. No labs exist for the medical monitoring of patients. When an individual demonstrates exposure related illness, it cannot be directly confirmed despite the existence of protocols to measure it as per the cited studies above. Veterinary laboratories can do this but not human laboratories. In humans, harm must be inferred through the temporal association of exposure, assuming one knows of it, with meeting descriptions of adverse effects cited directly on the pesticide labels. The EPA confirms the need for medical monitoring in their own publication, “The Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisoning.” Beginning as ‘flu-like’ symptoms, with respiratory symptoms, nausea, cramping, headache and so forth, intensifying into more frank signs of central nervous system effects. These can include the inability to sleep, nervousness, attention deficits, tremor and convulsions. Irreversible damage can result if sufficient numbers of nerve cells are damaged.

These chemicals target nerve cells (of insects and people) to stop working by hyper-activating them. Nerve cells fire excessively due to alterations of the sodium ion channels on the nerve axons. The resulting over-stimulation of the nervous system leads to paralysis and death in insects. Applied to the skins of animals for flea and tick control, pyrethroids and pyrethrins are known to kill small animals. Veterinary toxicologists don’t actually know the lethal dosages for these products on animals and therefore don’t recommend their use on cats. If the animals suffer sub-clinical signs of damage, it doesn’t appear to be monitored in terms of behavior and learning ability. Do we really want to measure safety only in terms of lethal effects?

What about people? When pyrethroids and pyrethrins are applied indoors, these products not only contain the active ingredients designed to disrupt nerve cell functions but also ‘other’ chemicals called synergists, which keep targeted and untargeted life forms from swiftly eliminating the poisons from the body. One such ingredient, piperonyl butoxide targets the liver to accomplish this goal. It is also known that these products also affect the endocrine system which regulates hormonal activity. They can contain ingredients which are suspected or confirmed carcinogens. The nature of pesticides, from their active ingredients to the petrochemicals solvents used to deliver them in liquid sprays, guarantees an array of problems will be brought indoors which were of less concern when their use was limited to large, open areas, away from concentrations of residential properties. Bio-monitoring in research has been an invaluable tool for observing unexpected effects such as the affect of farm chemicals on entire communities. Bio-monitoring has permitted conclusions to be reached about the effects of dietary exposures in children. Unless we are aware of these levels, we cannot identify the points at which we need to be clinically concerned and corrective action taken for the health of patients.

I was at my doctor’s office yesterday and we had an interesting discussion about this because he was helpless to find a resource to determine if I was being exposed to these chemicals. Someone has been spraying substances on my car which make me feel sick and are sometimes visible to the eye. A couple of highway patrol officers have been kind enough to even photograph the visible residues and one police officer took a sample of it last summer. Unfortunately, the police laboratory did nothing with it because they don’t have the forensic capacities to do such analysis according to detectives. The CHP was most apologetic that the best they could do was take those photographs and note the incidents. Interestingly, one of these increasingly common incidents took place last month as I was returning to a friend’s home after meeting with Congressman Waxman’s staff (about toxic chemicals) in Los Angeles. Nothing more could be done in the absence of lab testing and it isn’t possible to have that done, contrary to movie and television scripts leading us to believe that the use of forensic science is common in law enforcement.

And that is simply wrong in this day and age of information which enables us to monitor our intriguing technologies. Where is the guiding wisdom of science when it comes to ensuring our tools are safe for us to use in each new application found for those products? Whether it’s smart-meters for calculating our electricity usage or a can of pesticides someone buys at a local store, we have the ability to find out if it is working to our advantage or to our disadvantage. Since our government is minimally ‘invasive’ in regulating commerce unlike Europe where chemicals are supposed to be tested now for safety before they are marketed, it is up to consumers to develop the body of evidence via experience and sometimes through the courts. That takes access to all information about the circumstances surrounding their use. Unless, for some reason, it is deemed by industry more desirable not to tell us.

Over the past five years, I have been attempting to obtain missing ‘paper discovery’, i.e. my records of employment by YAI/National Institute for People With Disabilities and their sub-division, the New York League for Early Learning based in New York City. I was employed there between 1995 and 2000, at which point I retired on disability with a diagnosis of “Toxic Effects of Chemicals”. The EPA actually suggested I file this suit because they have little or no authority to regulate where various registered pesticides are used and depend upon citizens to exercise our own legal rights in these matters. Civil procedure requires all parties in a suit to exchange information. All of it.

Those attempts have been unsuccessful to this day and my attorney has been reluctant to dispense with the polite formalities and file a motion to compel. I have written about this litigation as an example of how law suits aren’t an evil instrument for profit, but a means for evolving legal safeguards about our use of technology as experience teaches us more about it.

The School Environment Protection Act was introduced (and twice passed in the Senate) which not only endorsed our right to know and consent to the use of pesticides in and around schools, but limited or prohibited the use of the particular types that damage the central nervous system. It cannot be written into law simply because the House of Representatives has never had the opportunity to consider voting on it. The Committee on Agriculture has been ‘studying’ it for a decade although it has no connection with agriculture. That is a lot of study and very little action, requiring us to ask the question of why the Senate was convinced this was a sound measure while our representatives in congress aren’t allowed to reach their own conclusions about it. Had they done so in 1999, I might not be writing this now and there certainly would not have been a need to file this law suit.

My lawsuit asserts that I was poisoned by the use of chemicals actually invented for outdoor use but which are likely to be found in the majority of schools in American today for lack of information about their use (advance notification) and selection of more benign (least toxic) forms of pest control. To the best of my knowledge, my employers were not responsible for the use of these chemicals as they didn’t own the building rented to house our school program, nor did they hire the pest control company which applied the chemicals. The missing records should corroborate the testimony I provided many years ago as they became aware of the changes in my health and ultimate need to retire. Indeed, they supported my application for disability based upon chemical exposures. When I filed suit, the defendants were the ones to sue my employers and assert they might hold some degree of responsibility.

I still have not been privileged to obtain those records and my suit is currently marked ‘disposed’ in the courts pending completion of discovery. Those documents are key yet remain unavailable to me after many years of waiting through the legal process which remains largely incomprehensible to me. In the absence of my ability to advance the legal questions surrounding product safety for certain current-use pesticides, we must return to the ability of citizens to assess health concerns which arise from their use.

Mr. Lautenberg, below is my latest correspondence with the EPA. That correspondence began with this blog post about pesticide regulation. I hope this letter will be the last needed to direct legislative efforts at the most basic level of safety monitoring. Just this morning, my reply from the EPA informs me that that agency has no interest or authority in ensuring their approved chemicals are actually safe for use by the public. Frankly, I can’t find a single agency which does so I imagine this is the type of situation our forefathers envisioned when they put a clause in the Constitution which allows Congress to legislate matters affecting commerce where they deem it necessary.

It is necessary. Just ask the American Association of Environmental Medicine about their frustration with regard to the limitations they face on assessing patient exposures. Review the testimony of an esteemed pediatric expert who testified before Congress on these matters, Dr. Phillip Landrigan. Let us have the ability to medically assess our exposures and correlate findings with symptoms. Forensic testing in the matter of ‘suspicious’ appearances of chemicals should not be limited to fiction seen on television shows, but a working reality. We are citizens first, and consumers second. Medical insurance isn’t useful to us if medical procedures to confirm the sources of our illnesses aren’t available to us.

Thank you for your attention.

Barbara Rubin

My recent correspondence with the EPA about laboratory testing for their approved chemicals received a reply recommending I contact other agencies:

Dear Ms. Rubin,

I contacted our EPA pesticide lab for assistance. They suggested that there are at least a few commercial laboratories that can test for pesticides in blood, urine and tissues. A quick Google search turned up
ABC Laboratories and Columbia Analytical Services as sources for those tests. However, the analytical testing would likely be expensive. In addition, your email said you were concerned about pyrethroid exposure.
They also pointed me to a listing of pesticides that have been found to be able to be tested for by clinical labs:

You might want to contact the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) if you have not spoken to them previously. They have a medical toxicologist available who might be able to advise your doctors. You
can reach them at 800-858-7378.

I hope this helps.

Claire Gesalman
Chief, Communication Services Branch
Office of Pesticide Programs
Ask a question:


My reply to that detailed my prior contacts with those laboratories and pesticide information facilities:

Dear Ms. Gesalman,

Thank you for your note but I have spoken with the NPIC extensively and their list of labs is simply that – a list of labs who all tell me they are not equipped to do this kind of testing because there is no profit to be found in it. The listing in the file you provided doesn’t even name the current-use pesticides in the class I mention. I have spoken with the CDC and EPA criminal divisions and all I hear is that there are no known labs which do medical assessments outside of research. Even law enforcement can’t test for such chemicals in a tremendous breach of concern for homeland security. Indeed, conversations with FEMA and the office of Homeland Security indicated that they hadn’t even considered this question.

In the article posted at my blog addressing Administrator Jackson, I described the lack of facilities for bio-monitoring in the US and Canada for these ubiquitous chemicals. I called the researcher whose name appeared in a CDC study from 2002 in which 70% of Americans (sample size of 3,000) showed metabolites of these chemicals in urine. She confirmed the fact that she cannot carry out medical testing nor are there other facilities known to her. Without physician access to testing, there is no possible way for Americans to find out if these chemicals, known neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors, are present in large enough concentrations to be responsible for particular symptom constellations or rising rates in known diseases like Diabetes etc. Right now, the presumption is ‘no harm’ because there is no monitoring to indicate otherwise. An absence of data is not proof of safety and is a direct violation of the FIFRA laws, requiring some means of assessment.

Dursban was only banned because physicians were able to look at the enzyme suppression it caused in all exposed victims, many of whom suffered egregious and permanent damage. In fact, many labs have expressed an interest in running the necessary tests as these chemicals are widely used to fog entire neighborhoods in vector control operations. I’ve been told by at least one lab that their state demanded such exorbitant fees for the permit required to conduct such testing, that the lab would never be able to recoup their investment in that market. Such a fee structure would indicate that it is no accident that labs have never acquired the equipment needed for these panels.

If labs are competent, why are they paying any fees to be able to monitor chemicals approved for use by the EPA? Some exposures are by consumer choice but, like second hand smoke, even more individuals are affected merely being in the vicinity of treated locations. These are farm chemicals displaced for sale and use within indoor settings. Obviously, they behave differently outdoors, and humans have longer exposure times indoors with the slower rates of degradation and absorption by permeable materials.

This isn’t merely a disregard for the health of citizens but it is a detriment to the marketplace itself. Failure to monitor the performance of farm chemicals in this manner is inhibiting product R&D designed for indoor locations. People are not crops and the EPA, which is doing it’s best to tell consumers not to use these products (indirectly of course), are allowing ignorance to govern the marketplace for pesticides even as statistics record ever-increasing rates of illness in Americans.

At this time, I am in need of assessment for exposures to these chemicals and have wasted months in searching for facilities that even the government can’t locate. Can a research lab be given permission to do this testing? As for expense, my exposures to organophosphates were assessed under my Medicare plan. If I am forced to live in a society which uses pyrethroids without any restraint or notice to me, my insurance ought to cover such things. Medical costs actually drive reform in product safety. We legislated against the use of tobacco indoors because of the costs to society in medical care and discovered Avandia was a hazardous drug by looking at Medicare and Medicaid expenses for cardiac problems among Avandia users.

Let the system work for pesticides as well. And we shouldn’t be naïve about these chemicals harming our armed forces and numerous injuries to civilians in their homes and on the job. We know about the potential for damage. Only through medical monitoring can we learn about the parameters guiding safe use of these products. Can you help me get tested when I am next exposed?

Barbara Rubin

cc: Congressman Waxman
Senator Lautenberg
Senator Boxer
Senator Feinstein
Administrator Jackson


And my final response from EPA was received this morning, entirely dispensing with their role in safety monitoring of approved pesticides:

RE: Your email to EPA
Sent: Thu 12/09/10 9:16 AM

Dear Ms. Rubin,

Have you contacted commercial labs such as the ones listed in the email I sent you yesterday? Our lab thought labs such as those should be able to test for pyrethroids. We don’t have anything to do with fees for testing. That is not something EPA requires or would be involved with. You would have to contact the state that sets such fees to find out why they charge fees for labs to conduct testing. In terms of whether
medical testing is available, again, that is not in EPA’s purview. The agencies that set standards for medical monitoring, etc. would be part of Health and Human Services, I would think. You mention research
laboratories. EPA cannot “give permission” to labs related to doing studies, due to strict rules about research on human subjects. Other agencies also have to abide by similar rules. But again, there are no
restrictions on commercial labs, if you can find one that has the capability to do the testing you desire.

Perhaps your best bet the next time you believe you have been exposed to a pesticide would be to call the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222 and ask their advice.


Claire Gesalman
Chief, Communication Services Branch
Office of Pesticide Programs
Ask a question:

Final Note:

Legislators and Administrator Jackson – Bio-monitoring is not about using humans for research purposes. It is straightforward medical practice. Poison control has no recommendation to make other than to see your physician. We already know how that approach turns out.

Congress has the power to intervene in matters of commerce when the commercial sector fails to meet the need citizens believe meets our basic right to know or need for assurances of safety. This is a matter pertaining to the medical, as well as the chemical, industries When knowledgeable individuals like myself can’t obtain basic information regarding our health and safety or pursue legal recourse in a timely manner, what is the average citizen to do who is largely unaware of exposures, along with their physicians?

Will this take an executive order? Must I go to the President of the United States with this conundrum?

Categories: EPA, Letters

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