Family Circle article: 

Women who make a difference - Making Schools Safe - She Protects Kids From Pesticides.

In 1990, at the age of 41, Ruth Berlin's life began to fall apart. She felt nauseated and dizzy. Her vision was blurry and she had tingling in her limbs. All this, and Berlin was losing her short-term memory too. That was the worst part. As a psychotherapist, she couldn't afford to forget her patients' names, and yet there she was, sitting before them in her Los Angeles office—trying to recall important information.

"The whole thing was terrifying," says Ruth, a licensed clinical social worker now living in Annapolis, Maryland. "I didn't know what was going on." After a battery of tests ruled out several illnesses, including multiple sclerosis and a blood clot in her lungs, her doctor suggested that she was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, possibly caused by pesticide poisoning. Coincidentally, her 4-year-old son, Jesse, had developed an allergic reaction to pesticides. when symptoms continued in Ruth and Jesse after the family relocated to Maryland two years later, she wondered, What was the link?

A small advisory in a local newspaper provided a clue. The state Department of Agriculture was bout to begin spraying malathion, a pesticide they had used in past years, to control mosquito outbreak. It was the same insecticide that Los Angeles officials had deployed in 1989 and 1990 to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly.

At the library Ruth read a list of some of the side effects that can result from malathion exposure: headache, nausea, dizziness, muscle twitching, weakness—all maladies that she and 1,800 other Los Angeles residents had complained of in the days and weeks following the spraying there—though a California official maintains there's no evidence linking the symptoms to the spraying. "Everything I experienced was on that list," says Ruth, now 50. "Over time it became evident to me that I was poisoned by the exposure. When they sprayed, the symptoms worsened. It was too uncanny."

Ruth worried about her son, too, after realizing that his school used pesticides to control insects. "In the home and garden, pesticides are used by choice," she says. "But when you send your kid to school, you don't have a choice." In 1993 and 1994 Ruth would evolve from victim to activist, founding the Maryland Pesticide Network—a coalition of 26 organizations, among them environmental, teacher, medical, labor and garden groups and the Maryland PTA—which would push for some of the toughest anti-pesticide laws for schools in the nation.

In 1998 Ruth was instrumental in having passed a Maryland law mandating that school districts notify parents and school staff members 24 hours before pesticides are applied inside elementary schools. The law also obligates schools to inform parents of a pesticide's potential adverse health effects, a first in the nation. In addition, the coalition successfully pushed for Maryland schools to adopt an integrated pest management (IPM) strategy that requires them to use pesticides only as a last resort.

Still, the law didn't apply to outdoor pesticide use and exempted middle and high schools. Ruth continued to fight to have all children protected. "There are nontoxic alternatives for almost any problem," she says. "We should not be exposing our children to potentially toxic pesticides."

In 1999 she went back for more, successfully pressuring the state legislature to extend that notification ordinance to outdoor application. "The legislation is the most comprehensive of all the states," says Jay Feldman, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, a national advocacy group of which Ruth is vice president.

"She has helped put Maryland at the forefront on this particular issue," says Mary Ellen Setting, the Maryland Department of Agriculture official responsible for implementing the state's pesticide regulations. "Other states are just starting to come along developing their own programs."

Says Ruth, "Everybody has a passion. For me, it's the issue of children's health and toxics, such as pesticides. I believe we're all here for a reason. We're not just here to have a good time. I'm not going to sit around when I see injustice. Children and teachers are being sprayed and don't even know it."

But legislative victory didn't come easy. For three years, from 1994 to 1997, the coalition failed to get a pesticide notification bill passed in the state legislature. The pesticide and pest control industries and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education were among those against their efforts. Ruth, however, remained optimistic.

Maryland Governor Parris Glendening was so impressed with Ruth's fortitude that he appointed her to his pesticide advisory board in 1997. "Ruth campaigned aggressively and argued passionately for passage of the pesticide laws," says the second-term governor. "Thanks to Ruth's tireless efforts, moms and dads in Maryland have the information they need to keep their children health and safe," says Glendening.

"She's a motivator, she gets things done," says Judith Billage, an Annapolis attorney who is also co-coordinator of the network. "She believes in righteous indignation." Bobbi Seabolt, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is happy Ruth has focuses attention on pesticides. "From our point of view, most parents don't know the effects of pesticides," says Seabolt. "Ruth is committed to the health of children."

But detractors think Ruth may have gone too far because the chemicals that are applied, they say, are safe. Further, they point out, many Maryland schools had already implemented an IPM policy. These new laws, they argue, only create more bureaucracy for school districts.

"Is it overkill? Maybe," says Daniel La Hart, environmental manager for Ann Arundel County Public Schools. "I don't know that we should be regulating that everyone be covered." Maxine Adler, a lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Green Industries, a consortium of lawn care and pest control providers, contends Ruth wants to do more than just reduce pesticide use in schools. "Ruth Berlin has one goal in mind, and that's to prohibit the use of pesticides," says Adler. According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, each year about one billion pounds of conventional pesticides are applied, mostly for agricultural use.

Malathion is one of the most widely used insecticides. New York City recently relied on the chemical to kill mosquitoes carrying the life-threatening West Nile virus. But studies of malathion have resulted in differing conclusions. Some recommend prohibiting its use, while others say that it is safe and useful. A spokesman for Cheminova Inc., the leading manufacturer of malathion in the United States, says a person would have to deliberately ingest the chemical for it to do any harm.

Usually "the rate of application would be 2 to 4 fluid ounces per acre—that is not much when you consider it's one of the least toxic of al insecticides," says Don O'Shaughnessey, director of regulatory affairs at the Wayne, New jersey, branch of the Danish company. Moreover, he says, "It would be extremely unlikely" that someone would develop chronic symptoms such as dizziness, headaches or fatigue from an exposure to malathion, though O'Shaughnessy does agree that many people believe they've been affected by the pesticide.

"People will develop a fear of certain things, and the fear itself will elicit the symptoms," he suggests. "It's extremely possible to have very real symptoms based on an emotional response."

But Ruth is convinced that her symptoms, some of which persist, including periodic double vision and partial paralysis in her toes, were caused by an overexposure to a number of pesticides.

Her son Jesse, now 13, hasn't quite shaken his pesticide sensitivity either. He still carries a fast-acting homeopathic pill and an inhaler, insurance against anaphylactic shock, a potentially fatal reaction to pesticides. Ruth says a more environmentally conscious approach to pest management benefits everyone. At least one Federal lawmaker agrees. last October Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey introduced legislation—modeled in part on the network's initiatives—that would require all public schools in the nation to spray the least toxic pesticide and to notify parents 72 hours ahead of its application. Meanwhile, Ruth is pleased that the Congress is listening. "My illness happened for a reasons and it propelled me into doing what I'm doing," Ruth says. "I feel great that we accomplished this. At the same time I also feel like it's a drop in the bucket. Parents should know their kids are exposed at schools."

In recognition of Ruth Berlin's outstanding achievements, The Andrew Jergens Company is making a $1,000 donation to the nonprofit organization of her choice.

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