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Pesticide Exposure Kills Woman. Three Years Later EPA Files Complaint.

(Beyond Pesticides, December 22, 2008) The U.S. EPA has filed an administrative complaint, seeking a maximum penalty of only $4,550, against a pest control company that sprayed pesticides in a couple’s home, causing the wife to die shortly thereafter. It has been more than three years since the incident took place in Florence, Oregon.

Swanson’s Pest Management of Eugene, Oregon sent an employee to a home on June 29, 2005 to apply Conquer Residential Insecticide Concentrate, active ingredient esfenvalerate, and ULD BP-100 Contact Insecticide, active ingredient pyrethrin. The couple returned to their home two and a half hours later and immediately fell to the ground due to the fumes. Paramedics were called in and they too experienced respiratory distress or became ill when they entered the treated home. According to The Oregonian, Florence Kolbeck was 76 years old and died of cardiac arrest as a result of the exposure. Her husband, Fred, was hospitalized for respiratory distress.

The complaint was filed following a review of Swanson’s use of the two pesticides, finding that the company failed to properly ventilate the home prior to the occupants re-entering, and improperly applied Conquer as a “space spray” at nearly three times the allowable rate. All of which are violations of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The U.S. EPA complaint also contains alleged violations pertaining to an application at another residence that took place prior to the application that led to the women’s death. In this case, the applicator allegedly used the same tank mix of pesticides, though no adverse health affects were reported.

A 2006 article in the Seattle Times reported that Swanson’s general manager, Steve Fisher, “said his review of the case showed that the technician sprayed the home as he normally would… ‘Unfortunate things happen in just about every walk of life.’”

This past March, Fred Kolbeck settled a $2.5 million lawsuit against Swanson’s for an undisclosed amount, according to The Oregonian.

Swanson’s has 30 days from the day they received the U.S. EPA complaint to either arrange a settlement conference, file an answer to the Complaint, or pay the proposed penalty. Swanson’s operation manager, Joan Jensen told The Oregonian, “that the EPA’s allegations are not accurate” and that the “negotiations with the agency are ongoing.”

According to EPA, “The consequences of Swanson’s alleged violations were extremely serious,” yet the federal pesticide law limits the penalty EPA can seek to a maximum of $4,550.

With the phase-out of most residential uses of the common organophosphate insecticides, chlorpyrifos and diazinon, home use of pyrethrins and pyrethroids, such as the ones applied at the Kolbeck home, has increased. According to a 2008 report, pyrethrins and pyrethroids were responsible for more than 26 percent of all major and moderate human incidents involving pesticides in the United States in 2007, up from just 15 percent in 1998 - a 67 percent increase. This is based on an analysis of adverse reaction reports filed with the Environmental Protection Agency by pesticide manufacturers. While pyrethroids have been characterized as less toxic than organophosphates, the number of reported human health problems, including severe reactions and even deaths attributed to pesticides containing pyrethrins and pyrethroids, increased from 261 in 1998 to 1,030 in 2007, nearly a 300 percent increase. Pyrethrins and pyrethroids account for more incidents than any other class of pesticide over the last five years. EPA data shows at least 50 deaths attributed to this supposedly safer class of pesticides since 1992.

Pesticide products containing synthetic pyrethroids are often described by pest control operators as “safe as chrysanthemum flowers.” While pyrethroids are a synthetic version of an extract from the chyrsanthemum plant, they are chemically engineered to be more toxic, take longer to breakdown, and are often formulated with synergists, increasing potency and compromising the human body’s ability to detoxify the pesticide. Pyrethroids may affect neurological development, disrupt hormones, induce cancer, and suppress the immune system. Researchers at Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) find that residential pesticide use represents the most important risk factor for children’s exposure to pyrethroid insecticides.

There are clear established methods for managing homes that prevent infestation of unwanted insects without the use of synthetic chemicals, including exclusion techniques, sanitation and maintenance practices, as well as mechanical and least toxic controls (which include boric acid and diatomaceous earth). Based on the host of health effects linked to pesticides, their use in the home is hazardous and unnecessary. Most pest problems can be solved without toxic pesticides, through sanitation, proper storage of food and trash, exclusion (sealing entryways), traps and non-volatile baits. For detailed information on preventing specific pests, see Beyond Pesticides’ Alternatives Factsheets

For more information on the details of the Kolbeck/Swanson incident and the issues surrounding ventilation after a pesticide application, click HERE.

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 Albert Einstein
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