Without Warning... Spraying deadly poisons in Florida backyard poisons mother and son
Kathy Rink was home going about her business one Saturday in mid-June 1997 when she got caught up in Florida's most recent war against a despised agricultural pest. Her life has not been the same since.
That sweltering afternoon, a woman in jeans, a long-sleeved flannel shirt, work boots, gloves, a mask, and safety glasses appeared in the backyard of Rink's Sarasota home. Rink, a petite blonde with bright blue eyes and an earnest demeanor, says the woman was there to spray the fruit trees with malathion (an organophosphate insecticide and nerve toxin) as part of the battle to wipe out the Mediterranean fruit fly. Numerous medflies had been found in and around Tampa and were threatening Florida's $21 billion horticulture industry.
Rink had seen the television announcements about the medfly campaign and went outside to ask the woman what she was spraying. She says the woman described it as "a little bit of molasses syrup mixed with a tiny, tiny bit of pesticide." Despite the fact that Rink was out there in shorts, the woman didn't stop. She sprayed Rink directly on the leg.
Rink says she went inside and started feeling dizzy almost immediately. She vaguely remembers sitting down and calling a friend but has no memory of the rest of the day, or even the exact date. Later that evening, her youngest son Adam, then 12, went out and climbed an orange tree in the backyard. Though neither Rink nor her son had any preexisting health complaints before that first exposure, both have had serious medical problems since.
Immediately after the spraying, Adam became very weak, wouldn't eat, and slept 12-18 hours a day for weeks. Rink says he also threw up every time sprayers returned that summer. After several visits and disturbing blood test results, his pediatrician didn't know what to make of his condition. So she set up an urgent appointment for them with a children's oncologist in Saint Petersburg.
The oncologist gave Adam another blood test and reviewed the results right then. Instead of sending them home, Rink says the doctor told them he needed to take bone marrow. "When I asked why, he said 'leukemia.' He told me to hang in there." Leukemia was ruled out, but the source of Adam's illness was never fully identified. Eventually he was diagnosed with elliptocytosis, a mild, hereditary form of anemia which could have made him more susceptible to the pesticide exposure. His health has improved, but he gets sick much more easily than before, and she worries about the long-term consequences.
Aside from memory loss, Rink herself developed numbness and tingling in her hands and feet, sensitivity to common household chemicals, and migraine headaches -- some serious enough to land her in the emergency room.
The night I met her at an environmental scientist's home in Sarasota in July 2001, mosquito control trucks fogged the neighborhood with synthetic pyrethroids, a class of pesticides that disrupt the endocrine system and promote the growth of breast cancer cells in laboratory studies. Rink was concerned since she, like many people who have been previously poisoned by pesticides, report adverse health reactions to subsequent exposures. The next day she reported another debilitating cluster migraine. "Before I was sprayed, I didn't even know what a migraine was," she laments. "Now I have to take migraine medication just to function."
The Rinks were not the only people to get sick in the cross-fire of Florida's crusade against the medfly. One of the most tragic cases is Barbara McFarland, a former security guard at a Tampa car dealership.
McFarland, then 66, was making her rounds checking the cars, as she did each night, when she saw a very low flying plane approach and fly directly over, dousing her with "a whole face full" of the spray. McFarland finished her rounds but not before the plane came back and drenched her again. She started vomiting immediately and went home. A little later, she says she could barely breathe.
The next day McFarland tried to get to her doctor but had to return home because she was too weak to walk the length of the parking lot into his office. The following day she went back to the doctor with her husband and ended up in the hospital for seven days, where she was given inhalers and oxygen, which she still needs. Other than occasional asthma, McFarland didn't have any preexisting health complaints, but now she says the doctors tell her she will never get better.
The physical and financial dependence on others since the spraying incident has been particularly hard for McFarland. "I worked ten hours a night and took care of all my own housekeeping, and now I can't even sweep my floors," she sighs. "I do some cooking, but there are days I can't even do that."
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