Harsh dangers for children hidden in illegally imported pesticides.
Posted on Mon, Mar. 24, 2003 - Philadelphia Inquirer - Harsh dangers for children hidden in illegally imported pesticides.
Often resembling harmless candy or blackboard chalk, highly toxic pesticides are being smuggled into the U.S. and are landing on nearby store shelves.
By Tom Avril Inquirer Staff Writer
Colorfully wrapped packages of potent pesticides are being smuggled from Asia and Latin America to stores in the United States, creating a hazard for more than just rats and bugs.
Though often labeled "safe" for humans, and sometimes resembling innocuous candy or blackboard chalk, the illegal goods have poisoned children in New Jersey, New York and Chicago.
The Environmental Protection Agency has launched a crackdown on such products, which include one powder with the sinister name of "Tres Pasitos," Spanish for "three steps" - a reference to how far an afflicted mouse can travel before it keels over dead.
The agency has fined store owners in New York and central New Jersey for selling such products, and officials also discovered them last summer in 12 stores in Camden, Pennsauken and Cinnaminson, during a preliminary fact-finding mission. Enforcement may follow.
Still, some children are getting sick.
In a report published this month by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, doctors documented a case of a 15-month-old New York City girl who was playing with a Chinese rodent-control powder that her parents had applied in the corner of their kitchen.
The girl has suffered seizures since the May 2002 incident, and as of January, she still suffered from severe developmental delays, the report stated.
The products are often much more powerful than necessary to kill rats and insects, said Adrian Enache, manager of the pesticides program in the EPA regional office that serves New Jersey and New York.
"We have had labels on which it says it's very safe, safe to humans, safe to pets, safe to the environment, but in reality was such a toxic substance that just simply smelling it would give headaches and dizziness to the average person," Enache said.
Most of the products are made in Asia, and are sold in immigrant-owned markets or at larger thrift stores and flea markets, he said.
The regional EPA office that includes Pennsylvania has not yet conducted a similar crackdown, but pesticide experts say they would not be surprised if there were illegal products in some Philadelphia stores.
Indeed, in a recent visit to a Chinatown grocery, a reporter was able to find mothballs imported from China that had not been registered with EPA.
The label said the balls were made of naphthalene, and thus were theoretically similar to the type of mothballs that are legal in the United States.
Yet when such products are unregistered, there is no way for consumers to know if the claims made on packages are accurate, Enache said. The products could contain unlisted toxic agents, or they could fail to have proper safety warnings, he said.
For a pesticide to be sold legally, with an EPA registration number on the label, it must undergo rigorous analysis of its toxicity to humans, other "non-target" organisms and the environment in general.
The active ingredient in Tres Pasitos is aldicarb. George C. Hamilton, a pest management specialist with the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension, called it a "nasty material." He said the ingredient is 10 to 20 times more toxic than the one in Dursban - a product banned by the EPA for home use in 2000.
Jeanmarie Perrone, director of the toxicology division at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, said she treated two Tres Pasitos poisoning cases during a previous job at a North Jersey hospital.
The product was typically brought from the Dominican Republic by people who felt the U.S. products weren't strong enough to stop pests, she said.
In humans, aldicarb attacks an enzyme in the body that takes care of breaking down a certain nerve transmitter, she said. The resulting buildup of the transmitter can lead to seizures, vomiting, diarrhea, and even death.
TETS, the ingredient in the Chinese powder that poisoned the girl in New York, is a little-known convulsant poison. New York Poison Control officials had trouble pinning down the active ingredient until hearing reports in September of a snack shop owner in China who used it to poison a competitor's store, killing 38 people.
One West Coast woman who used to sell an illegal "Chinese chalk" pesticide in this country accused the EPA of being overzealous, and said her product was safe if used properly. She spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Their goal isn't to stop it," said the woman, who stopped selling the chalk several years ago after being fined. "Their goal is to make [money] off of everyone who sells it."
Not so, Enache said. During the South Jersey visit, for example, officials let store owners off with a warning the first time around, telling them the products were illegal and could lead to fines of $5,500 per violation.
Contact staff writer Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or firstname.lastname@example.org