Human Reactions to Pesticide Exposure

People vary widely in their response to toxins. Some people tolerate a room full of cigarette smoke easily while others react with coughing or a stuffy nose, and a few with severe shortness of breath. Different people react differently to solvents, pesticides, and other common household and industrial chemicals too. An exposure to pesticides that has no immediately measurable effect on most people can cause significant effects in some, ranging from allergic reactions to a mild case of 'the flu'. But, for about a thousand hypersensitive people in the Ottawa-Carleton region, even low concentrations of some substances can trigger disabling health problems ranging from severe asthma or migraine to anaphylactic shock.

The reactions of these hypersensitive people seem to be the result of a breakdown of some normal body function - we don't know yet what breaks down. Such breakdowns can be caused by viral or fungal infections or by an overexposure to toxins such as pesticides or solvents; long-term exposure to toxins at moderate levels may be involved as well. After the initial breakdown, individuals become hypersensitive to many low-level chemical exposures. They can have many widely varied reactions that impact upon each other.

A victim of hypersensitivity feels terribly alone, and helpless. Worse, they are easily dismissed as 'just' psychosomatic by those of us who are unaware that most of the emotional turmoil is a result of the illness and our reaction to it, not the cause. These are real symptoms, terribly real.

The essential first step in the treatment of substance hypersensitivity is avoidance of the offending agents. There are a few people in the Region who are entirely confined to their homes because so many common chemicals make them sick. However, most hypersensitive people can function productively as long as they can avoid exposure to toxins.

If you use solvents or pesticides in urban areas, you may do so only in a manner that does not significantly harm others in your community. The Canadian government does not imply that pesticides are safe when it registers them. On the contrary, it states that "pesticides by their very nature are toxic chemicals". You are responsible for injury caused to others by your actions, both legally and morally - pesticide registration does not absolve you of those responsibilities.

So, all of us should use pesticides only as a last resort for serious problems, as our Regional government does. If you have a neighbour who suffers from environmental hypersensitivity, however, you have a special human reason to avoid pesticide use. The information sheets of the Health Dangers of Urban Use of Pesticides Working Group (available at the City of Ottawa Info Center, the Ottawa Health Department, and on the Internet) can help you do that.

This brochure is endorsed by: Jennifer Armstrong, M.D.; Ross Mickelson, M.D.; John Molot, M.D.; Claudia McKeen, B.Sc.Phm.; the Environmental Illness Society of Canada; and the American Preventive Medical Association.

Note: This was planned as the first of three brochures, this one on the 0.1% of people who are disabled for more than a day as a result of being exposed to common lawn sprays applied as directed; the next was to be on the 1% of people who are significantly affected for more than an hour with the same exposure; the third on the 3% who get 'the flu' or other apparently unrelated health problems with the same exposure. Bureaucratic conflicts within the City of Ottawa resulted in the last two not being issued.


Living with Environmental Hypersensitivity - on the Web:

John Sankey
other notes on pesticides