VERO BEACH, FLA. -- For Richard Pressinger, life is a beach. A clean, chemical-free beach. Pressinger, 33, retreats periodically to the shoreline sands of this Atlantic Coast community in a life-preserving effort to protect his health from airborne pesticides and synthetic chemicals.
When malathion, dursban, sevin and other chemicals are sprayed to kill insects on local lawns, golf courses, orange groves, public buildings and private homes, Pressinger is forced to flee. He suffers from what is known as environmental illness. His symptoms include headaches, flu-like congestion, difficulties in mental concentration and severe loss of physical energy. Pressinger's sensitivity to chemicals means he is a living environmental impact statement.
The impact is negative, and worsening. Living in a nation where more than 60,000 chemicals are in use, and with only 2 percent of them completely tested for toxicity, Pressinger exists in a state of medical vulnerability that medicine itself has yet to understand fully. Florida's golf courses, to take one example, are currently crammed with people whose health is not affected in any obvious way by chemicals spread on fairways and greens. Others, including Pressinger, sicken merely from being downwind from the golf course.
Precise numbers are unavailable on how many people suffer this way. No consensus exists on what to call it -- environmental illness, chemical sensitivity or just ordinary allergies. Nor are consistent controls in place. Three years ago, the Maine legislature passed a pesticide-drift law that forbids the application of pesticides "in a manner that results in off-target residues." The law was later weakened, resulting in regulations to "minimize drift to the maximum extent possible." Cross-country in San Diego, a city and county task force has recommended a law requiring prior public notice of pesticide use.
Federal regulation is equally varied. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, the two federal agencies that oversee chemicals, rarely are ardent in monitoring for health hazards. Muddled, both agencies have tended to go along with industry propaganda that either the chemicals are safe or more study is needed before concluding they aren't. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington public-interest group with a record of successful suits against lax government enforcers, reports that "scientists know surprisingly little about the effects of low-level exposure to pesticides, and therefore doctors are rarely able to diagnose pesticide-related illness."
One physician who has no trouble is Dr. William Rea, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon who is president of the Environmental Health Center in Dallas. In the past 12 years he has treated some 17,000 patients. Rea estimates that between 10 and 20 percent of the population are harmed by chemicals. "The illnesses are common and harmful," he says, "they're just being missed."
Last month in Washington, someone who isn't missing them won increased support for resistance against pesticides in the absence of federal or corporate control. Cesar Chavez, president of the United Farm Workers, was joined by Ralph Nader and 15 health and environmental groups in the ongoing national boycott of California table grapes. Chavez, still a giant in American labor, said that some 8 million pounds of pesticides are used annually in the California vineyards: "The same pesticides which cause death and deformities among farm workers and their children are being eaten in grapes every day by consumers."
In Vero Beach, Richard Pressinger hasn't eaten grapes or any other chemicalized foods for years. He had to leave his teaching job in 1982 because of formaldehyde products in the school's floors and walls. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Jamaica, he came home after a year because pesticides were sprayed in his village.
Pressinger is aligned with the Environmental Illness and Support Group, a local nonprofit citizens' organization formed to help fellow sufferers: "I'm tired of just complaining. Each year more and more people develop environmental illness. Something needs to be done, immediately. All logic points to creating an affordable environmental setting free of harmful chemicals."
The support group recently asked the city council to ban pesticide spraying or post notices when spraying occurs. The request was rejected. Here, as in uncounted other communities, the environmental war against bugs escalates as a chemical war against people.