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Synthesis/Regeneration 31   (Spring 2003)

Pesticides: A Chemical Weapon

Poisoning the Big Apple

by Mitchel Cohen, Green Party of New York

Widespread and indiscriminate pesticide spraying, purportedly for West Nile Virus, began in New York City two years before 9-11. Such spraying is now recommended policy for urban areas throughout the country. Spraying was, and remains, one important but neglected piece in the biological warfare puzzle.

Mass spraying of dangerous insecticides on the entire population and environment of New York City more closely resembled a military operation than a public health program. City officials whipped up hysteria about the West Nile Virus to circumvent civil liberties and to gain acceptance for the indiscriminate spraying of malathion and pyrethroid pesticides over the largest population center and urban ecosystem in the country. No such crisis mode was ever established for the far more dangerous flu epidemics or over ailments such as asthma with vastly disproportionate casualties when compared with West Nile encephalitis.

In 1999 and 2000, helicopters buzzed below the tree line, spraying the malathion concoction over children playing in parks and people strolling through their neighborhoods. No one was warned to get out of the parks or stay off the streets. Heavy spraying occurred over the New York City subways, sewer system, schools, and daycare centers. Spraying also occurred over or near open waterways, poisoning fish and marine life and wreaking havoc with delicate ecosystems. Pesticides were released over lakes and rivers, eventually making their way into the Atlantic Ocean, in reckless disregard for the warnings on the labels.

Mass spraying of dangerous insecticides ... more closely resembled a military operation than a public health program

Thousands of people were made sick by the spraying, but that didn’t stop officials from the City and the federal Centers for Disease Control from ordering the City sprayed repeatedly with a toxic barrage of Fyfanon ULV (96.5 percent pure, extremely fine lung-penetrating droplets of malathion) and the synthetic pyrethroids Scourge (resmethrin) and Anvil (sumithrin), which contained large amounts piperonyl butoxide.

Instead of a pesticides hotline, the City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene set up an undependable “West Nile Virus information center” telephone service. These phones were answered by non-unionized, ill-informed operators two-hundred miles away in Pennsylvania.

The City took no precautions to warn asthma sufferers, people with compromised immune systems, cancer survivors, people with allergies, or those facing repeated exposure (homeless people, subway workers, spray truck drivers), let alone everyone else about the dangers of spraying. As a result, immune-compromised illnesses such as common colds, flu and asthma have increased dramatically over the following years. Officials do not yet have data for long-term health consequences.

Anti-pesticide activists, headed by the NoSpray Coalition, opposed the blanket and proposed simple, safety-oriented procedures. These proposals included such inexpensive precautions as:

All of these suggestions were scorned by City officials and their proponents publicly castigated by the Mayor. “There’s absolutely no danger to anyone from this spraying [...] There are some people who are engaged in the business of wanting to frighten people out of their minds,” the Mayor charged.

Mayor Giuliani, Office of Emergency Management coordinator Jerome Hauer, and Health Commissioner Neal Cohen repeatedly assured the citizenry that pesticide spraying was “safe.” Giuliani’s irresponsible and misleading statements so angered New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer that he felt compelled to write several letters admonishing the Mayor and other City officials against claiming that the pesticides were “safe.” The Attorney General warned that had private companies made those claims they would be in violation of federal and state law.

This warning, however, did not stop the Mayor, who and branded the NoSpray Coalition and other opponents of the indiscriminate pesticide spraying “environmental terrorists” who “like to get you angry because it gets them on television.” The attorney for the NoSpray Coalition, Joel Kupferman of the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project, tried to attend one of the Mayor’s press conferences but was physically barred by armed marshals under the direction of the Mayor’s office. Kupferman was threatened with arrest if he did not leave the building.

...the truck drivers testified that the company had provided them with no training, safety equipment, respirators or health care.

Kupferman was trying to ask the Mayor about pesticide residues, which remain in the environment much longer than City officials and the Centers for Disease Control publicly claimed. In reality, the Fyfanon ULV (Malathion) did not break down into harmless ingredients as most New Yorkers had been assured by Mayor Giuliani. Instead, it breaks down into malaoxon and isomalathion; chemicals considerably more toxic than the original malathion itself.

The NoSpray Coalition hired independent investigators, who found that a high percentage of the malathion that had been stored in warehouses had already broken down into isomalathion and malaoxin in their containers before the spraying even began! They checked air-conditioner filters around the city and found astronomical levels of pesticide residue six months after the spraying had ended. They also dug up soil at the mayor’s city-owned estate, Gracie Mansion, and found high levels of pesticides months after the spraying had been suspended for the year.

Finally, a secret memo issued by the NYC Police Department after two years of spraying reflected the Coalition’s concerns. The memo quoted from the Mayor’s Chem-Bio Handbook which had been distributed to every police station and firehouse in the City. The memo warned police officers accompanying spray trucks to stay at least 25 feet away from the spray, wear protective clothing, keep the windows tightly shut, and avoid all contact with the pesticides, contradicting instructions given to police the previous year.

Like the memo, the book’s accurate and scary discussion of the dangers of pesticide exposure had not been made publicly available. The Handbook described in detail the dangerous nerve gases that were sprayed over the entire City, in violation of the manufacturers labeling instructions and federal law. No one else was provided this information.

...the vast majority of dead birds ... had been killed not by the West Nile Virus ... but by pesticide poisoning and air pollution.

When the spray truck drivers heard NoSpray Coalition members speaking on a radio program, they contacted the Coalition and told how they were very sick and thought it was related to the spraying. All of the drivers came from desperately poor Black communities and had been hired at low wages Doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital diagnosed the workers as having been poisoned by exposure to pesticides.

Foreshadowing the treatment of rescue personnel following 9-11, the truck drivers testified that the company had provided them with no training, safety equipment, respirators or health care. Under enormous pressure from the NoSpray Coalition, attorney Kupferman and New York Daily News journalist Juan Gonzalez, Clarke Environmental Mosquito Control, Inc., of Illinois, was finally fined $1 million by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The Coalition also succeeded in blocking a $267 million contract bid by Clarke. A week later, one of the workers whose testimony had been key to exposing the company was found murdered in an east-Brooklyn elevator with 17 bullets in his body; his wallet still in his pocket.

Federal, state and local authorities were responding, so they told us, to a “health emergency” in New York City triggered by 61 cases of encephalitis in the greater metropolitan area in 1999. These cases resulted in the deaths of seven elderly people who, we were told, were infected by mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus. Coalition activists learned that for two years, no health emergency was officially declared. The NoSpray Coalition began asking: If only 3%–5% of the birds autopsied were found to contain antibodies to the West Nile virus, and if indeed the virus is what killed them, what did all the other birds die from?

It was only after a great deal of pressure that the chief pathologist for New York State, Ward Stone, revealed that the vast majority of dead birds autopsied over the past few years had been killed not by the West Nile Virus, as we were originally led to believe, but by pesticide poisoning and air pollution.

NoSpray researcher Jim West took this information a step further with EPA maps of petrochemical air pollution alerts superimposed over the neighborhoods where people were said to have gotten sick or died from West Nile viral encephalitis. These maps coincided exactly, indicating at least a strong correlation between the illnesses alleged to have been caused by West Nile virus and days of heavy petrochemical-related air pollution. The maps also corresponded exactly for the birds that were said to have died from West Nile. Jim West hypothesizes that West Nile virus might not be the cause of death, but instead, a marker for petrochemical-related illness, and that everything the Centers for Disease Control and the City have told us about the West Nile situation is wrong.

There is still no independent confirmation of the cause of death of people said to have died in this “emergency,” nor any public release of their medical histories or autopsy reports that may indicate death from other causes. All of them had some pre-existing condition that compromised their immune systems.

Across the country, localities do not determine for themselves the cause of death, but send blood samples to the Centers for Disease Control, which determines if there were antibodies to the virus in the victims’ blood. Yet, when Jim West and I questioned Dr. Marci Layton, the NYC Department of Health official responsible for launching much of the West Nile diagnosis, Layton grudgingly admitted that no actual virus had been found in the autopsied brains of any of those the CDC was claiming had died from West Nile virus!

Numerous health officials told us off the record that mass spraying of pesticides for any reason was a bad idea for it is extremely dangerous to children, elderly people, and those who are immune-compromised, but very few would come forward or allow themselves to be publicly quoted. “We’re afraid of our funds being cut off, or being ‘excised’ from our positions,” one high-level researcher told me. The same researchers repeated the same theme like a mantra: All federal funds for combating West Nile virus were coming not through the Department of Health but through bio-terrorism budgets connected with the CDC and quasi-military agencies. “To get funded, we have to frame our applications in terms of bioterrorism, even when we know that that has nothing to do with it.” Indeed, government officials at first tried to pin the West Nile “invasion” on so-called terrorist countries such as Iraq.

Three years later, the question of what is causing the deaths across the country remains. At the very least, exposure to heavy petrochemical air pollution seems to be a major factor, an observation conveniently omitted from the reports emanating from those heavily funded by the pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries.

[21 apr 03]

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