Early this past week, near where I live, a 10 month old baby died, and his mother and 2-year-old brother were seriously sickened, almost certainly by pesticide exposure.
In brief, a young mother, with 2 young children moved into a single wide trailer. It was apparently all she could afford, and infested with roaches. She attempted to control them with “bug bombs” before moving in, but the problem persisted. Later, while living there, she continued to use “bug bombs” to combat the continuing problem, to the extent of greatly exceeding the recommended application rate and frequency. She may or may not have used proper methods. Her youngest developed breathing problems, she called 911, but the baby died. Later while visiting the 2-year-old in the hospital, the mother became ill, had to be admitted, and was moved to the ICU and placed on a ventilator. As far as I know this is where the matter stands. Final results from the toxicology labs are not expected for weeks.
Reactions across the region and nation in internet news article comments I’ve read have been mixed. Most news article comments have been highly emotional, either expressing great sympathy for the mother, or anger and blame at her actions.
My own emotional reaction to this situation has been incredibly muddled, and I’ve delayed posting this long because of that. I’m still not clear. I feel sorrow for the baby. Sorrow and sympathy for the mother and surviving child. Anger at the mother. Anger at the pesticide companies. I also feel a certain sense of personal failure. As illogical as that is, I suspect it’s not uncommon among people like me, who spend a fair amount of their work hours trying to teach people how to deal with pest problems safely and effectively. This whole situation is certainly a horrible failure in understanding of safe pest management and pesticide use .
There are a number of issues that haven’t been addressed in the commentary I’ve read so far. Most of that focused on the issue of the mother’s personal responsibility. Very little has brought up the issue of corporate responsibility, television advertisement as a source of information, labeling practices, public understanding of how to deal with pests or our cultural expectations of easy fixes.
Another issue unaddressed simply because most people just don’t know it’s an issue: bug bombs are not very effective for household pest control. They are much more effective at putting the pesticide where humans are, than where insects dwell. There is a history of incidents with these products of accidental poisonings and explosions that seem related to the very nature of the application method. These issues with bug bombs have been known for years, but…they sell well.
Other ill-advised pesticide products appear often, some of which almost invite improper use. A few years ago I ran into a flying insect killer for indoor use that was a combination product with an air freshener. You could have your well-known brand insect killer in either a floral or country fresh scent. Currently on the market is an indoor insect killer that also kills germs. Brilliant idea. I wonder how many users spray the kitchen counter (where the germs live) before reading the small print. Or if they read the small print. (It’s really, really small.)
While pesticide labels by regulation must contain pretty full information on how use pesticides as safely as possible, they are often extremely difficult to read. Pesticide companies actually print labels for separate states, using whatever is the minimum font size required by that state. I’ve seen labels with colors that seem deliberately designed to make reading difficult. A medium to light green on a beige background I saw a few years ago seemed designed both for difficult reading and to give the (false) impression that the pesticide was a “green” product. Labels seem to rarely be written for ease of comprehension.
Many people I talk to put great reliance on what they have seen on television (even in paid advertisements), or what they have seen in a store as reliable sources of information. This seems to be a lack of critical thinking skills, a lack of education in evaluating information validity. It is hard to learn these ways of thinking if one reaches adulthood without them. With information bombarding us from all sides, within a more and more rapidly changing world, these skills are essential. How many people have the skills to distinguish the marketing promise of simple, instant satisfaction pest eradication, from the actual pesticide label instructions and warnings? Which has more effect on their behavior?
Most people want easy ways to deal with problems. We’ve come to expect in 21st century America that there is a simple cure in a bottle or jar for everything. With health issues, we see this in the preferred use of drugs to deal with disorders such as adult-onset diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure that would often be more effectively prevented or dealt with by lifestyle changes, diet, etc. With pests, there is the same belief that a magic pill will cure all troubles. Cultural methods, exclusion, cleanliness, etc. just seem too difficult compared to an easy promise on a bright bottle.
How much of this lead to tragedy for a small South Carolina family?