July 6, 1997 in City
Pullman Park Pesticides Linked To 9-Year-Old’s Chronic Illness Open Jugs Of Herbicide Kept Where Children Play
Last January, 9-year-old Ashton Satterlee made an odd discovery in the Pullman city park behind her home where she played nearly every day.
“They’re milk jugs, Dad, only they’re painted like the Army,” the third-grader told her father, Washington State University chemistry professor James Satterlee.
The research chemist and his wife, architect Sandra Satterlee, were stunned by what they found in Lawson Garden Park: camouflage-painted, gallon milk jugs, each partially full of liquid herbicide, tucked under bushes and vines throughout the park.
Since July 1996, at least 15 of the open jugs had been kept in the garden where children play.
The Satterlees are furious with state inspectors and Pullman city officials, who they say misled them about the chemical concentrations in the jugs and inaccurately described the contents as less harmful than drinking a cup of coffee.
Their complaint about the Washington Department of Agriculture has helped trigger a federal investigation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency probe begins this month with a review of hundreds of pesticide complaints statewide over the past two years.
“This is one of the cases that has focused our attention,” said EPA pesticide expert Lyn Frandsen in Seattle.
Meanwhile, the city of Pullman gardener who placed the jugs in the park was recently notified of the state’s intent to fine him $2,300 for mishandling pesticides and endangering children. “Pesticide” is a term for any chemical used for killing insects or weeds, including herbicides.
Ashton’s parents are convinced the chemicals sickened their only child.
Lab tests showed several powerful herbicides clinging to the socks and mittens she wore in the park last winter. She was sick for months with asthma-like problems and was referred to Spokane pediatric lung specialist Dr. Michael McCarthy.
Ashton’s symptoms are “strongly suggestive” of exposure to pesticides, McCarthy said.
“These chemicals disturb the respiratory tract. Coughing is usually the main symptom, and she had a chronic cough with no cold symptoms,” McCarthy said.
Recently, Ashton developed allergic reactions she never had before, including hives, her parents said.
“She’s missed a lot of school. This was a healthy kid a year ago,” James Satterlee said.
Ashton’s no longer allowed to play in the park - since she found yet another chemical-filled jug along a sidewalk 50 yards from her home in May.
The Satterlees’ scare came two months after another incident, involving Seattle public relations executive John Hough.
Hough became severely ill after he and his hunting dogs were sprayed in November with a heavy cloud of 2,4-D in public wetlands near Hanford.
The two cases are unusual. They involved well-educated professionals who challenged state inspectors’ assertions that nothing bad had happened to them - and who had the clout to keep pushing for a thorough investigation.
“I’d hate to be a poor Hispanic farm worker and have to deal with these people. That’s what bothers me the most - they are trying to minimize the dangers of pesticides,” James Satterlee said in an interview Wednesday at his home.
Department of Agriculture Director Jim Jesernig has denied his department is lax in enforcing pesticide laws.
But Jesernig said the department is “stretched thin,” with only 12 inspectors to regulate 25,000 pesticide applicators statewide.
In the Hough and Satterlee cases, regulators have ruled the applicators were in the wrong.
The EPA fined Precision Helicopters, the company that sprayed Hough, $1,500 in April for three violations of federal pesticide laws.
Varnel Williams, the Pullman gardener who left the jugs in Lawson Gardens, was hit with seven violations of pesticide laws, including endangering children, keeping inadequate records and mixing two of the herbicides in overly strong concentrations. Williams could not be reached for comment last week.
The chemical residues found in Ashton’s gloves and socks indicate the jugs “were within reach of children,” said Assistant Agriculture Director John Daly in his June 5 letter to Williams, whose license also may be suspended for 33 days.
Williams has appealed the fines and suspension and, according to his supervisor, was at work spraying Lawson Gardens last week.
As a result of the incident, the city of Pullman is no longer leaving herbicide jugs in the park, said Ralph Dannenberg, Pullman public services director.
The fines are inadequate and won’t serve as a deterrent, said James Satterlee.
“The culture at the agriculture department now is to presume everything’s OK,” he said.
They say their case is evidence the state isn’t taking pesticide exposure seriously enough.
On Jan. 19, the Satterlees reported Ashton’s discovery of the jugs to the Pullman police and to a family friend, former Pullman City Councilwoman Joan Honican.
Honican, an environmental activist, called the agriculture department’s Spokane office. Meanwhile, Ashton had developed chest pains and a severe cough, her parents said.
On Jan. 27, department inspector Byron Fitch came from Spokane to the Satterlees’ home.
“He said the jugs contained a one-half percent solution of Roundup, and that’s less hazardous to people than drinking a cup of coffee,” said Sandra Satterlee.
“I felt he was trying to make me feel that I was the problem - that pesticides are really good for you,” she said.
“I didn’t use those precise words, although I suppose one could infer that from what I said,” Fitch said Thursday.
“I was trying to point out there is a wide range of toxicity in chemicals, and some are certainly less toxic than others, although that doesn’t mean they’re safe to drink.
“I should have ascertained just the facts, I guess. I’m not a toxicologist,” said Fitch, who joined the department in September after 32 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s soil conservation service.
Fitch’s remarks angered Satterlee. The research chemist told Fitch he’d retained samples of the jug contents and intended to test them independently. That made Fitch “nervous,” Satterlee said.
Cliff Weed, the Agriculture Department’s top compliance officer in Olympia, said Fitch shouldn’t have compared Roundup to coffee.
“If Fitch made such a statement, it is one that I’d not like my investigators to be making,” Weed said. An assessment of a pesticide’s danger “should come from a toxicologist.”
The Satterlees got different stories of what was in the jugs. A state Department of Health inspector said they held a 2 percent Roundup solution. Dannenberg told a Pullman newspaper the jugs contained “less than a 1 percent” solution.
In March, Sandra Satterlee wrote to Attorney General Christine Gregoire, requesting the state lab’s results on the jugs.
They showed the jugs contained Roundup, herbicides Banvel and 2,4-D, plus other unidentified chemicals. The 2,4-D Williams applied to the garden was mixed in a 2 percent concentration, more potent than federal laws allow.
The Satterlees would like to see strong reforms put in place as a result of the EPA investigation - especially to protect children.
“Sandra and I would rather not have our experience made public, but we have to say something. How we were treated was unwarranted,” Satterlee said.
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