By Michael E. Miller
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Oh, how we Floridians love exclusivity: the waterfront mansions, the crystal chandeliers, the caviar-stained revelry of Palm Beach estates and Fisher Island yacht fetes. Most of the time, of course, sniffing this rarefied air means paying through the schnozz. And here in the land of bonehead public policy, even breathing clean air has become an A-list endeavor.
Thanks to a new state statute, $50 and a penchant for, say, projectile vomiting near suburban lawns secures placement on a list so elite that some might even venture to label it obscure. Ladies and gentlemen, put your glands together for the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services' (HRS) Registry of Chemically Sensitive Persons.
Initiated to protect those who have extreme reactions to pesticides, the ten-month-old registry contains a grand total of - dramatic pause, punctuated by furious calculator taps - 22 people. Never an agency to dally at the chance to defend the rights of a few strident victims, HRS mails out the list quarterly to the state's 2255 licensed pest-control companies. The companies, in turn, must notify registrants by phone, letter, or personal visit before they plan to spray a neighbor's lawn. (For the rest of us, companies are required by law to post a sign after they've doused a lawn.)
"Not just anyone can get on that registry," says Phil Helseth, administrator of the Pest Control Division of HRS's Entomology Services. Indeed, besides the 50 bucks, (plus ten dollars for annual renewal), applicants must document their sensitivity with written, witnessed testimony of a physician (preferably an allergist or toxologist). "I expect we'll get more as time goes on," Helseth adds, "but honestly, I don't expect to see hundreds on the list. I just don't think there are people out there who can get the medical
With the 22 chemically sensitive persons clustered in a dozen cities, Helseth concedes that not every single licensed pest company will be affected by the registry. What he finds more troubling, though, is that noncommercial spraying is out of the registry's jurisdiction, as are golf courses and farms. "Your neighbor could spray his lawn every day and there's nothing you can do about it."
Cherie Decker, the HRS staffer who has overseen the registry's growth - it started with thirteen charter members in January - refuses to bow to Gloomy Gus-ism. "We just got in two [applications] today," she reports. "And I expect three or four more by our next mail-out in October. We've been getting a lot more publicity recently."
Decker admits that HRS has received a few complaints about the $50 registration fee. But she notes that the charge is necessary to help defray costs for a program that accounts for an as-yet undetermined fraction of the Pest Control Division's million-dollar annual budget. HRS has managed to cut postage costs by mailing out the registry with other materials, but staff costs persist. "When you get a complaint that someone wasn't notified and you have to send an entomologist out to investigate, that's when you get into a lot of staff time," explains Decker. "But so far the paperwork's not too bad, because the list is so small."
If the registry hasn't quite hit its stride in the cost-benefit race, those on the scroll defend it staunchly. "It's been a blessing," says Miamian Shara Patlow, one of two anointed Dade County residents. The advance warnings - she's received two since joining the registry in July - allow Patlow to crank up her air-filter systems, shut her windows, take extra allergy pills, and, if necessary, delay returning home until the fumes diffuse.
Patlow says her sensitivity problems began five years ago and brought on a plague of symptoms, from aching joints - for which she taught herself self-hypnosis - to wheezing and coughing. "I used to spend four to five hours a day coughing. It was embarrassing. I sounded like Camille," recalls Patlow. A medical consultant, she spent thousands of dollars searching for an explanation, even undergoing a lung biopsy before accepting a diagnosis of chemical sensitivity. Determined not to let the malady control her life, Patlow uses a "multipronged" treatment regimen to keep symptoms in check: air cleaning, mineral supplements, adrenaline shots, and, of course, the HRS registry.
But for Patlow and her chemically sensitive brethren, the registry represents more than a partial solution. It marks the legislative triumph of an increasingly vocal faction. The chemically sensitive maintain they are grim harbingers of environmental ruin, the earliest victims of rampant industrial contamination. Cynics (a category that includes much of the medical establishment) view the chemically sensitive as champions of an inchoate pseudoscience, psychosomatic whiners whose hysterical claims delegitimize documented environmental ills. Whatever the case, the activists have proved to be powerful lobbyists.
The driving force behind Florida's movement is Ann Mason, an energetic Sarasotan who pressured lawmakers to pass the June 1989 bill that required lawn-care sprayers to post signs and established the registry. Mason says her goal now is to extend the notification requirement to all pesticide users and to ensure that more than just neighbors are informed. "The further-distance notification is critical for the hypersensitive like myself. Just yesterday I was driving my mother home from the airport and I saw a man spraying shrubs on the side of the road. The chemicals came through the air-conditioning ducts and - boom! - I was toxic. If he'd been spraying the whole lawn and not just the shrubs," Mason says ominously, "I'd be highly toxic right now."
A one-time real estate agent, Mason now spends her days crusading. "I had to quit my work because if I was showing a property and they sprayed nearby, I could be in a life-threatening situation," she explains. "Imagine if one of those lawn-care trucks pulled up and I had to say, `Oh, no, we've got to get out of here. I can't show you this house.' I'd look like an idiot." Once exposed to toxins, even as far away as a mile, Mason says she suffers from symptoms that include nausea, blurred vision, dizziness, headaches, muscle pain, tissue swelling, elevated blood pressure, an overactive bladder, excessive salivating, vertigo, plugged ears, excessive sweating, strange dreams, and an uncomfortable feeling under her left breast. "These chemicals are nerve gas," she insists, "the same as came out of Nazi warfare." Mason maintains she is not opposed to pesticides across the board, but is pushing for people to use less-toxic alternatives.
The response from the $1.5 billion pest-control industry, which thrives in lawn-crazed South Florida, has been predictable resistance. Sprayers such as Leon Carangi, an eighteen-year veteran and owner of Bugbusters, says the added requirements will both jack up the price of lawn service and cause some companies simply to cancel accounts in neighborhoods with chemically sensitive troublemakers. Like most spray pros, Carangi invokes the fact that the chemicals he uses have passed muster with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But that argument is hardly compelling when you consider that EPA is itself re-evaluating the danger of various pesticides, owing to its own previously lax standards. "There's always a better way to manage your property than to dump pesticides on it," observes Charles Trichilo, chief of EPA's Occupational and Residential Exposure branch. "But it takes more time, so people choose the expedient route."
Given the national mood concerning pesticides, pest-control companies look to be in for a rough time. In the past five years, two dozen states have enacted spraying-notification laws and a handful have started registries. A series of congressional hearings on lawn spraying resulted in the recently proposed federal "Notification of Chemical Application Act," which, if passed into law, will require that lawn-care companies post a sign 72 hours before spraying and notify neighbors within several hundred feet. "The bill does not include a registry," notes Elaine Francis, a legislative aide to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who proposed the measure. "Largely because of what we heard - that they're ineffective.