Ackerman Hearing on the spraying of New York City

March 31st, 1999

Good afternoon gentlemen. My name is Barbara Rubin and I would like to share with you my personal account of what life was like for me last September and October. In order for you to understand these events, in brief, you need to know that I have a condition known as MCS or multiple chemical sensitivity. It means that I have serious adverse health reactions to lower levels of toxic or poisonous material that healthy people are able to tolerate without immediate, observable health effects.

These are not allergies because it makes no sense to say you are allergic to poison as if it were ragweed or a bouquet of roses. I simply cannot handle respiratory or skin contact with such items as perfumes which often contain formaldehyde, fumes from newsprint, chemicals in dry cleaned clothing, toxic molds and, most particularly, pesticides. I carry this tank of oxygen which helps me to get through a reaction when I am unsuccessful in avoiding contact with such toxins. Avoidance is the main treatment for MCS. You can think of it as a breakdown in the detoxification systems of the body. One western state health department survey I read stated that 16% of sampled adults reported unusual sensitivities to various chemicals. Another 6% had already been diagnosed with MCS.

I work full time in a school setting. Last September and October I took on an additional full time job; running the gauntlet of the city administration to avoid contact with malathion, a member of the organophosphate class of pesticides and resmethrin, a pyrethroid. My past reactions to organophosphates included asthmatic, neurological and gastrointestinal symptoms. I have had similar experiences with pyrethroids. Therefore, It was crucial for me to avoid being in any area that had been treated for at least 48 hours.

To accomplish this, I needed accurate information about when three areas of the city would be treated: my apartment which was then located in Floral Park, Queens, my father’s home in southwest Queens and my place of business in Douglaston. I missed days at work when Douglaston was sprayed directly or when a nearby golf course was treated. The hardest part was knowing when to leave my home and where to go. Advance information was extremely hard to obtain and my preparations for leaving home were time consuming. I began to leave linens, blankets, a pillow, clothing and toiletries in my car for instant mobility. I cannot eat in restaurants and carried dry cereal and filtered water everywhere.

The OEM (Office of Emergency Management) appeared to be the only source for information. It sometimes conflicted with reports on the radio or in newspapers. The OEM recommended I check a cable tv station but I do not get cable nor do I carry a television with me to work. I called the OEM at least 4 times daily – 3 times during the day and again at midnight. The following are comments made to me by different persons on duty at the OEM:

1. “You do not need to leave home, these chemicals are safe and all you need to do is close your windows and stay in for two hours afterward.”

2. “I know that YOU think it is dangerous but you should speak with our toxicologist.” I generally had to say why I wanted to leave the area and no one had heard of MCS. By the third week, I had learned to start all of my calls saying I had severe asthma, carried oxygen with me and therefore needed to know about spraying locations. I found it humiliating to have to give strangers personal health information of any sort but it did result in my getting more information. OEM staff sometimes told me they did not know current information but, after hearing my needs, sought out a supervisor to help me.

OEM staff often said they lacked information. I had been told:

1. “Call the next shift” (although the next shift might start at 5:00 when the spraying usually commenced).

2. “This information is only good for two hours. Call back later to confirm.”

Ground spraying in the town next to Floral Park was once scheduled for an early morning. The night before, I asked the OEM spokesperson about the stiff wind expected overnight and the next day. I asked her what I should expect in the way of drift. The OEM person asked, “What is drift?”. I explained that pesticides tended not to remain where they were put when the wind blew. I was advised to call the weather service to learn if it would blow in my direction.

A good day for me was getting 48 hours advance notice. I then had time to pack and a chance, if both my apartment and my father’s home were to be treated, to try for a reservation in one of only two hotels I found on Long Island that could accommodate my needs. It took an exhaustive search to find lodgings (at a cost of $175 per night), that did not spray perfumes on every carpet and surface of their rooms. The first time I realized I could not stay in either my home or my father’s place, I prepared to park in the lot of a hotel and sleep in the car if no rooms were available and safe for me. Luckily, it was not necessary.

It was terribly painful to wake each morning to my clock radio where the mayor’s voice could be heard saying how safe the pesticides were. I had read otherwise in a number of websites, including that of the EPA. The stress was terrible and I was fortunate enough to be able to outrun the choppers and ground trucks. I wondered about outdoor workers and the homeless, children and the elderly, persons with immune diseases and so on down the line.

I had lived in NYC for 42 of my 44 years on this planet but moved to Nassau County last December. I could no longer trust an administration that had so little regard for the truth, its citizens (both healthy and infirm) or a willingness to consider less dangerous chemical options in protecting the public from both real and presumed dangers of West Nile Virus. I ask this panel to seek federal oversight of all municipal spraying policies to ensure these decisions are not left in the hands of persons who are not qualified to make these judgements. People are not crops. Even the pesticides used on crops are being reassessed now by the EPA for more accurate toxicity ratings. Why can’t we have that privilege? But, unlike crops, we need advance notice for applications of any toxic chemicals ANYWHERE in the city. If the city has time to put up no parking signs for parades, it can put up notices of pesticide or herbicide use as well. We also need chemical free areas where sensitive populations can be safely relocated when needed in any type of emergency.

I thank you for your efforts here today.

Categories: Testimony

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