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Nerve Gas in the Living Room

the link between pesticides and neurological disease by Peggy Munson


pesticidesImagine if a company offered to sell you nerve gas to spray in your living room, or if leftover Agent Orange, watered down, was slathered on the grounds where your children go to school. It sounds like the plot of a futuristic horror novel, or the work of a sinister militia, but what if it was real?

Most people don’t realize that the common pesticides we use today, on lawns, homes, and fields, were based on chemical warfare agents that were developed in World War II. The deadly nerve gas sarin is just a potent organophosphate (OP), the most commonly used class of insecticides. Phenoxy herbicides, now applied liberally on golf courses, gardens, and lawns to kill weeds, were used to reap destruction in Vietnam under the now-famous name Agent Orange. Yet, between termite treatments and pesticide diffuser candles for back yard parties, pesticides have become so much a part of our lives that they appear innocent and necessary. In Silent Spring, ecologist Rachel Carson called this phenomenon “the harmless aspect of the familiar.” It is hard to look at a backyard candle and think that someone is wreaking inadvertent war.

Individual pesticides undergo rigorous safety testing. But much of this testing is based upon the false assumption that exposure to pesticides leads either to death or full recovery, not chronic disease. Furthermore, most safety research does not take into account the power of synergy — the effects when two pesticides are used at the same time in the same place, which can greatly increase toxicity. Recent research on synergy has found that combined effects of pesticides commonly used together or in the same place can cause brain and neurological damage. The Journal of Neuroscience reported in December that two common pesticides, paraquat and maneb, mixed in amounts that might mimic human exposure, can recreate the brain damage associated with Parkinson’s Disease. A research team at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center documented nerve damage to the brains of Gulf War Syndrome patients caused by pesticide exposures. The World Health Organization reports that neurological diseases will become an international health crisis in the next twenty years. As Sandra Steingraber writes in Living Downstream, “At what point does preliminary evidence of harm become definitive evidence of harm? When someone says, ‘We were not aware of the dangers of these chemicals back then,’ whom do they mean by we?”

I can no longer count myself amongst that we. As rush-hour traffic winds by the Big Blue Bug, a giant blue metal insect poised on a building on the Southern edge of Providence, I think about the way I used to believe in evil insects and heroic vanquishers. The Bug is a Rhode Island landmark. Created as an advertisement for a local exterminator, Big Blue has found his way onto state lottery tickets, and into local folklore. Even traffic reporters navigate by him. But I haven’t made it as far as the Bug in about a year, as I’ve been too sick to leave the city. When I am able drive that far, I dream about the day when I can just continue South, and visit my friend in Miami. My friend Mayra is a Cuban émigré who used to jog and roll around in the grass of the pesticide-treated golf course behind her home, before she became a landscaper. I grew up in the center of Illinois, the granddaughter of farmers, in an agricultural county that has had the highest corn and soybean production rating in the world for ten years running. In 1992, though we didn’t know each other yet, after using household pesticides, we began to experience debilitating mono-like symptoms and vertigo that never went away. Mayra and I suffer from the overlapping conditions Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS) and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), and have been disabled for years. Mayra can barely move from her bed. She is too sick to see her family and lives in a virtual bubble. I am predominantly homebound, often bedridden, relying on help for basic needs.

CFIDS causes symptoms ranging from vertigo to memory loss to constant flu-like symptoms and exhaustion, leaving its patients so ill that they score worse on quality of life tests than recent transplant patients, chemotherapy recipients, HIV patients, and those with every other disease they have been compared against. MCS makes patients highly sensitive to chemicals and scents, so that perfume, cleaning products, copy toner, and pesticides can run the life-threatening risk of causing anaphylactic shock. Since hospitals — the only salvation against such extreme reactions — are filled with cleaning products and people wearing scented products — most MCS patients have a prohibitive time finding a safe or healing environment. The British Journal of Radiology reported that CFIDS patients have brain damage to the right hippocampus. Like pesticides, illnesses can work synergistically. Many CFIDS patients also have MCS.

Mayra and I do not know for sure if our frequent pesticide exposures set us up for a disease that would ravage our bodies’ control centers, but we suspect they played a role. Some researchers, as well, have begun to believe that CFIDS and MCS might also be linked to pesticides. Hugh Dunstan led an Australian research group that found high levels of pesticides in CFIDS patients’ tissue. British doctor Sarah Myhill has noted that CFIDS patients exhibit the same symptoms as those with chronic organophosphate exposure. Mayra and I, both vegetarians and health-conscious from a young age, still did not have any hesitations about employing flea dips, spraying our bodies with bug spray, or bicycling through agricultural areas in spraying season. When chemicals are so ubiquitous, to think them anything but harmless would mean living life as if under constant assault.

The Big Blue Bug is now symbolic of a big social blunder. Though insects have become increasingly resistant to pesticides, humans have slowly accumulated the poisons in fatty tissue. In just over half a century, the effects of this neurological assault are finally becoming clear. CFIDS, now more common than breast cancer, lung cancer, or HIV infection in women, is just a small part of this international crisis of neurological diseases. As I search for treatments to restore my damaged brain, I hope the collective brain will think a little longer before waging this insidious civil war.

This essay originally appeared in Natural Awakenings Miami and cannot be reproduced without permission from the author.


Peggy Munson is the author of the poetry collection Pathogenesis and the novel Origami Striptease, and the editor of Stricken: Voices from the Hidden Epidemic of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. More information can be found at www.peggymunson.com. Peggy also blogs about MCS issues at www.myspace.com/peggymunson. Click here to buy her books.

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