Project manager Jim Morris dropped a box of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) records next to my desk. It was December 2007, two weeks after I’d started work at The Center for Public Integrity as a computer-assisted reporter. This box contained thousands of reports of pesticide exposures involving people, pets and wildlife.
“What can we do with these?” he asked.
Not much, I thought, since what he’d handed me represented only a fraction of the EPA’s pesticide exposure archive. Even this amount would have buried us in paper, making analysis all but impossible. Morris said that he’d asked for the records in an electronic format months earlier, but he’d been told that the information was available only on paper. At the time, he hadn’t argued the point. But the records obviously had been printed from some sort of database, so we concluded that if we could acquire all of the data in its original electronic form, we could look for meaningful trends.
Morris, a veteran environmental reporter, first heard of the EPA’s pesticide exposure data system while writing an investigative article about the health effects of the pesticide chlorpyrifos—better known by its trade name Dursban—for U.S. News & World Report in 1999. Despite assurances from Dursban’s manufacturer, Dow AgroSciences, that the widely used bug-killer was perfectly safe, the EPA banned it for residential use in 2000. In his article, Morris relied on the EPA exposure reports—and the agency official then in charge of interpreting them—to tell the story of a product that showed signs of harming people and animals with alarming regularity. He’d resolved then to one day go after the entire EPA database, believing there were other dangerous products on the market that weren’t being adequately regulated.
The Center for Public Integrity published its investigation of the dangers of pyrethrin- and pyrethroid-based pesticides in July 2008.
Analyzing Government Records
In January 2008, the center moved to acquire the database, called one of the “Ten Most Wanted Government Documents” by the Center for Democracy and Technology. An employee in the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs told me that these records were “kind of” available in an electronic format, but that the database was old and would be difficult to work with. The employee suggested that I tell her what I was looking for, and the EPA would conduct the analysis for me. Morris and I quickly rejected this idea and filed an FOIA request for the data. To our surprise, and to the EPA’s credit, the agency responded in about two months, even though it had to remove thousands of names and other confidential information from the database.
After familiarizing ourselves with the more than 300,000 records in the database, one fact became abundantly clear: The number of incidents attributed to pyrethrins—a family of insecticides extracted from chrysanthemums—and their synthetic relatives, pyrethroids, had increased dramatically since 1998, according to reports filed with the EPA by pesticide manufacturers.
Our analysis also revealed that the number of human health problems, including severe reactions, attributed to pyrethrins and pyrethroids had increased by about 300 percent in the previous decade. Our review of more than 90,000 adverse-reaction reports found that pyrethrins and pyrethroids together accounted for more than a quarter of all fatal, “major,” and “moderate” human incidents in the United States in 2007, up from 15 percent in 1998. Although the number of deaths was low—about 20 from 2003 to 2007—the number of moderate and serious incidents (more than 6,000) attributed to the group of chemicals was significantly higher than for any other class of insecticide.
The numbers surprised us. Americans, it turned out, increased their use of pyrethroid and pyrethrin insecticides after the EPA had cracked down on organophosphate pesticides such as Dursban. Toxicologists and epidemiologists told us that pyrethrins and pyrethroids are thought to be less acutely toxic than organophosphates, and the manufacturers insisted that the products are safe when properly applied.
Due to the rise in popularity of pyrethrins and pyrethroids, however, some researchers are taking a closer look. We discovered that recent studies have linked long-term pyrethroid exposures to developmental disorders and found that pyrethrins can cause allergic reactions and aggravate asthma. A team of researchers from Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study in 2006 concluding that even children fed an exclusively organic diet had pyrethroid metabolites in their systems after their parents had used pyrethroid pesticides in their homes. (These pesticides can be found in therapeutic shampoo and antiflea and tick shampoos, bug sprays, and pet products.)
Ellie, a mini dachshund from La Vernia, Texas, suffered chemical burns where pyrethroid-based antiflea and tick drops were applied to her back. Photo by Michele Worcester.
Sharing What We Found
According to the experts we interviewed, there was reason for concern. Notable was the case of a two-and-a-half-year-old Pennsylvania girl who died after being treated for head lice with a pyrethrin-based shampoo. We learned of the child’s death after filing an FOIA request with the EPA asking for copies of the FOIA requests filed by others. This led us to the lawyer for the child’s family, who wasn’t allowed to speak with us under terms of a settlement with the shampoo’s manufacturer. But we were able to track down the family’s lawsuit and related court documents, which told a vivid tale of a terrible death: “The skin on [the child’s] chest begin to peel, her breathing became labored, and her eyes roll[ed] back in her head.”
We recounted her death in our initial story in our series, “Perils of the New Pesticides,” published by the center in July 2008. We followed up with several other stories related to the intersection of the use of these pesticides with safety and health issues. In those stories, we spotlighted information about the following topics:
The poorly regulated sales of pesticides via the Internet
A study of the environmental impacts of pyrethroids by the state of California
The sometimes deadly effects of pyrethroid-based antiflea and tick treatments on pets. From 2003 through 2007 the EPA received 25,000 reports of pets getting sick after being exposed to pyrethroid-based flea and tick treatments from popular companies such as Hartz, Sergeant’s, Farnam and Bayer. The 25,000 incidents included 1,600 deaths.
To help parents, pet owners, and consumers better understand the risks associated with pesticide use, we also made the pesticide data searchable online. The public can assess for themselves the number of incidents associated with a particular product or chemical and judge for themselves whether they still want to use certain products.
The EPA cautioned that the data are not without flaws: Incidents are often reported by consumers and not by trained experts, nor does the EPA have the manpower to follow up on the reported incidents to determine their veracity. Critics agree the system could and should be improved. But the idea, which some have put forward, of relying on the chemical industry to collect information on incidents is akin to allowing the fox to watch the hen house. The EPA plans to overhaul its system in the next year to make it more efficient. Even so, its own analysis of pesticide exposure data already has prompted product recalls, chemical use restrictions, and chemical and product phaseouts.
As a result of the center’s investigation, Debra Edwards, director of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, said the agency would expedite a review of the health effects of pyrethrins and pyrethroids. “I’m going to ask that we do a broad report on pyrethrin and pyrethroid incidents to see if we can determine anything about trends,” she told us. The agency also launched an investigation to determine if the maker of the pyrethrin-based shampoo used on the little girl in Pennsylvania had violated any EPA regulations by not reporting the child’s death.
While we await the outcomes of these inquiries, it’s worth remembering that pesticides have too often been deemed safe by their manufacturers until there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The final decision on whether products like Dursban stay on the market rests with the EPA. But journalists can help hold this agency accountable by demanding and parsing data buried in its computers.
Michael B. Pell, a computer-assisted reporter at The Center for Public Integrity, worked as a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times and as a Pulliam Fellow at The Arizona Republic.