(Beyond Pesticides, July 26, 2007) A company with previous pesticide violations will likely face a significant fine after accidentally spraying children at a day care in Virginia last week with herbicides. Several children were directly sprayed and at least three experienced symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning.
The company, NaturChem, was hired by Norfolk Southern to spray a section of railroad tracks, which they do every three years to suppress unwanted plants along the tracks. Sixteen children were playing outside at the day care, adjacent to the tracks as the NaturChem tanker went by. Four children, who were playing along the fence, were directly sprayed. While day care staff took them inside, washed them and changed their clothes immediately, at least three children had acute symptoms following their exposure, including a bloody nose, diarrhea, eye irritation, and blistering.
The chemicals’ labels prohibit application methods that result in drift to other property or people, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture, and it is illegal to use pesticides in a manner inconsistent with their labeling. This is NaturChem’s second violation in Virginia, following a $2,000 fine in 2005 for causing property damage in Giles County. The company also reached a $194,200 settlement with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture three years ago for 809 separate violations, in what was that state’s largest ever agricultural fine. While the company, with Norfolk Southern, is responsible for the children’s medical expenses related to their exposure and cleanup of the day care’s playground, they will also face a larger fine than for their previous incident in Virginia.
The chemicals that NaturChem sprayed were glyphosate, triclopyr, and imazapyr, according to Angela Harris, a senior toxicologist at the Arkansas-based consulting company Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health. These three chemicals have been linked to a variety of health effects beyond irritation, including cancer, neurotoxicity, and reproductive effects.
However, according to Ms. Harris, the chemicals are relatively harmless. “Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen right then, so the kids don’t have to worry about getting sick tomorrow or anything because of the chemicals,” she said. “Those are really common base chemicals that anyone would spray in their backyard if they were spraying. Those chemicals are deliberately made to be fairly non-toxic to humans because humans use them a lot.” NaturChem’s General Manager, Eddie Johnson, claimed that the chemicals “are not going to hurt anybody.”
The company’s claim is not reassuring parents. Sara Ballou, whose 2-year-old son was sprayed, followed the decontamination routine recommended by a poison control center. “If it’s not a big deal, why are all these things having to happen?” she wondered. “I really want to know why it happened, and I want to be assured that it will never happen again.”
Spraying along railroad tracks and roads is not the only vegetation management option available. For more information on state programs and alternatives, read “The Right Way to Vegetation Mangement” in Pesticides and You (pages 9-17).