Pesticide Fog:Unnecessary Evil

February 01, 2012 By Joanne Walby

Off the Cairo-Alexandria desert road is a gate that leads to the top of a hill. Sprawled on this hilltop is City View, a residential compound where residents pay a premium for peace and quiet and buildings form clusters around green gardens where children play. The entire complex is surrounded by a high security wall, but some residents believe the real danger lies inside its walls. 

Every early morning and evening, a chemical insecticide fog, intended to kill mosquitoes, engulfs the community, a scene repeated in neighborhoods across Egypt. It quietly settles on leaves, blades of grass and playground equipment.  It drifts into open windows, and meets residents out for a walk at sunset, coating their clothes and being breathed in their lungs. It penetrates the skin, enters the bloodstream and collects in the liver along with all the substances the human body cannot process. Some residents believe this long term exposure is killing them.

Khaled Shaalan has been visiting his mother in the compound for a few months but says he already knows four people in the surrounding buildings who have lymphoma. “And I don’t know 90% of the people who live here,” he says. Gihan Morsi is one of those neighbors diagnosed with lymphoma. She has been advocating for less toxic alternatives, as she believes her illness was caused by daily exposure to the chemical pesticide fog.

The Lymphoma Foundation of America, published an article in 2001 which asked, “Do pesticides cause lymphoma?” Rather than providing a direct ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the article states that people today are exposed to higher levels of chemicals in their daily lives, which it says are, “possible—even probable—‘causes’ of cancer.” 

It explains, “… when lymphoma is discussed by researchers, there are many things to consider: heredity, viruses, our exposure to chemicals, and toxic substances in our air, water, and food. These factors and exposures may vary, depending in part on our chosen occupations and where we live. Any or all of these may weaken a person’s immune system…It appears that pesticides may be one piece of a larger lymphoma puzzle.” 

Morsi has been an environmentalist for years, and hosted a show on Radio Cairo called Green Planet. Her illness forced her to leave her job almost two years ago as she underwent chemotherapy treatments. She has collected signatures from fellow residents in support of finding alternatives to chemical pesticides, but non-toxic substances where deemed ‘ineffective’ by the management who returned to using chemical pesticides. She says the management could have been more pro-active in finding alternatives, but she also recognizes that her neighbors put pressure on management to deal with the mosquito problem and would insist on having the chemical pesticide spray. “They would listen for the sound of the [fog machine] motor and when they don’t hear it, they complain.” Whether or not this is a safe dosage is not clear as regulating agencies do not require pesticide manufacturers to indicate how often they should be sprayed.

Other residents raised the issue of finding alternatives last summer when five dogs died, and many residents suspected an insecticide powder sprinkled on the grass to kill insects was to blame. [delete? Another resident who asks to remain anonymous, citing fears of retaliation from the management, says his own dog became very ill and passed blood. “The veterinarian said my dog probably only received a low dose by licking his paws after walking on contaminated grass.”] Other neighbors told of a child whose eye became irritated for weeks after playing in the grass. They suggested that if they insist on treating the grass, the very least they should do is put up a sign warning people to not play on it.

When asked recently about the pesticide regime, Magdi Doss, who arranges the pesticide regime for the compound, justified the use of toxic chemicals in dealing with mosquitoes. “When you are sick you have to take medicines that are sometimes toxic for you, but sometimes you have to use something harmful to fight an even bigger danger.” 

Doss says he was advised on a pesticide regime by Dr. Bahaa Hafez, a professor at Alexandria University in the faculty of agriculture, who also acts as a consultant and offers fumigation services to the complex residents.

Based on Hafez’s advice, Doss arranged for the compound’s engineer to apply Solfac, a synthetic chemical pesticide used to kill adult mosquitoes, for use in the housing compound. Solfac is a trade name of cyfluthrin, a synthetic derivative of the natural pesticide pyrethrin, which comes from the Chrysanthemum flower. Hafez says that if applied according to label instructions Solfac is considered safe by the Ministry of Health and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. 

However, the US Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention’s (CDC) website states, “Although considered to be a safer alternative to many other pesticides, pyrethroid pesticides such as cyfluthrin can cause pesticide illness even at low doses… Nontoxic, sustainable methods of pest control should be encouraged for primary prevention of pesticide illness.”

Aimee Code, environmental health associate at the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, studies the effects of pesticides and helps communities find less toxic alternatives. She said the idea of spraying twice daily in a residential area is “shocking” and ineffective. When asked what impacts daily doses of cyfluthrin could have on human health, she said she didn’t know as most studies look at high, or acute, dosages, rather than long term chronic exposure, which occurs from daily exposure. 

She adds, “What is concerning about this twice daily application is that pyrethroid pesticides, such as Solfac, are neurotoxins which means they break down barriers in the nervous system, harming normal nerve function but can also result in convulsions and death.” She said pyrethroids can cause asthmatic reactions if inhaled, and cause severe environmental effects when they accumulate in soil or contaminate a body of water as it is toxic to fish and aquatic insects, the base of the aquatic food chain. In addition, pyrethroids are toxic to other “helpful” insects such as bees, butterflies, and lady bugs that are necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

Code says the CDC and the EPA agree that trying to kill adult mosquitoes with a fogging machine is the least effective way to control a mosquito population I don’t think there is a toxicological study that evaluates health effects from such frequent exposures to cyfluthrin." Instead she recommends that people focus on eliminating any areas of standing water, where mosquitoes breed, and using larvicide, which is generally cheaper. 

The issue of pesticide use has divided this residential community on the hill into two camps. Morsi says she knows some residents, even cancer survivors, who insist on the mosquito spray. “I don’t think they see the connection between the pesticide spray and their health.” She said one of her neighbors even asks the man with the pesticide fogging machine to linger in her yard and give it an extra dose. 

Sally, a resident who asked that her last name not be used, says the pesticide workers also sprinkle a strong-smelling powder in the yard to kills worms she believes. “Then they knock on the door to tell us not to let our kids out to play. I grew up thinking worms are good for the earth, but I guess people here don’t want any kinds of critters in the yard.”

She also shares concerns about health impacts, as she has noticed more people getting diagnosed with cancer. She said the dogs’ deaths last summer sparked renewed discussion, especially on the compound’s Facebook page with some residents complaining that their children suffer from a persistent cough. 

Poisoned air, poisoned earth

Usually people move out of the city so their children can breathe cleaner air and play outside, but now parents are trying to curtail their kids’ exposure to the spray by keeping them indoors after school. “Mothers of small children are really suffering because their kids are getting coughs. If we lived in the city we wouldn’t have these problems,” Ghada Abdallah remarked, without a trace of irony.

Some residents have taken matters into their own hands and asked that the fogging be halted in their area while they explore other alternatives. One resident of the compound, Saad Mutawa, said it is important to understand the mosquito’s reproductive cycle in order to reduce pesticide’s effect through a more targeted application. He discovered swarms of mosquitoes living in the parking garage near his building and decided to spray larvae with malathion, another pesticide he believed to be less toxic. However, Code of the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, advises that malathion, an organophosphate, also has significant environmental and human health risks, having been linked to cancer in lab animals and an increase in non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among agricultural workers. She says, “The EPA says that there is suggestive evidence that malathion causes cancer.”

Indoor Use

Sameeh Mansour, professor of pesticides and environmental toxicology at the National Research Center in Dokki, concurs. He says that although there are over 7200 documented cases of pesticide poisoning each year, he estimates that this is less than 50% of the actual cases in Egypt. Most of the acute cases of pesticide poisoning occur in agricultural workers, but Mansour believes chronic long term exposure resulting from household pesticide use poses more serious risks to long term health. 

“Agricultural pesticides are degraded and made non-toxic by the sun’s ultraviolet rays and oxygen. But when we spray in our houses, there is little sun exposure, so we breathe it in all night, and it collects in the liver.”

Mansour says some pesticide companies try to market sprays that offer a one-year guarantee to kill insects, a claim that, he says, if true would be highly dangerous to human health. “That would mean the pesticide stays active for one year in the flat. That would be very unhealthy.” He said he once called a local insecticide company to find out what chemicals they would use against cockroaches. “They refused to tell me, saying it was a ‘trade secret.’” Mansour has gone on television calling for standards to regulate how pesticides are marketed, as many people may not be aware that these are toxic chemicals. “Commercials should focus on providing advice from experts on how to apply these toxic materials, rather than simply showing a beautiful woman spraying her home.”

He said children and developing fetuses are most sensitive to toxins such as food additives, drugs and pesticides. He says some pesticides are endocrine disrupters that impair hormonal development and the immune system, and have toxic effects on developmental and reproductive processes. Mansour warns that insects’ resistance to pesticides increase with use, as only those insects with genetic resistance survive and pass on their genetic resistance to their offspring. For mosquitoes, this can result in an insecticide-resistant population within weeks. 

A study on the effectiveness of insecticides was conducted by Cornell University professor David Pimentel in 1995. He found that effectiveness in reaching flying insects was, on average, less than .0001%, or one part per million, meaning that in order to kill a container of mosquitoes, a million containers of pesticide would need to be sprayed. 

Lack of Protective Gear

Egypt has one of the highest levels of agricultural pesticide use in the world, and Mansour estimates that consumption of household pesticides in Egypt is even greater. However, he says this domestic market lacks adequate regulation and management. “In the USA, for example, only licensed professionals are allowed to even purchase, let alone apply, pesticides. But here, anyone can buy them, and there is very little oversight in how they are used.”  

Hafez, the University of Alexandria professor who prescribed Solfac for use in the housing compound, said pesticide workers should wear protective gear over their skin, eyes and mouth, although residents in the compound report that workers wear no such protective gear. In a 2008 survey of 203 agricultural workers in El Beheira, Mansour found that half never wore any type of protective gear and that almost 80% learned how to apply pesticides from “friends” rather than ministry officials.  

Similarly, workers in the purportedly environmentally-friendly El Gouna resort, were not observed by the author over a two-week period in December to be wearing gloves or protective masks. Every afternoon just before sunset, the buzz of the fogging machine would rattle across the beaches, and people would bundle up their towels and move inside as the pesticide workers from Sotaico, a firm contracted by El Gouna resort to manage its pesticide regime, systematically cover the residential and hotel compounds with a chemical pesticide fog. Tourists and residents, seemingly accustomed to this daily occurrence and perhaps unaware of health risks associated with inhalation of Solfac, walk through the pesticide fog as it drifts through beaches, roads and outdoor cafes. Two Sotaico workers said they were not aware that walking with the pesticide fog billowing around them posed any health risks, nor were they given any protective gloves or face masks. 

Mark Michel, environmental officer at El Gouna resorts, insists that contractors are required to have their workers wear protective gear by insurance companies, and that workers are provided with health insurance. He says he personally has inspected the stores of carbon masks, protective eye wear and rubber surgical clothes available for the workers. “If they are not wearing it then it is by their own decision, but if they are observed more than two or three times not wearing protective gear, they could be fired.” 

Michel says that the amounts of pesticides and methods used in El Gouna are approved by the Ministry of Environmental Affairs Agency. He says they alternate spraying Sulfac and another brand containing lambda – cyhalothrin, both pyrethroid pesticides, every three days in order to prevent the mosquitoes from developing a resistance to it.  However, Mansour, of the National Research Center, says that alternating pesticides still creates resistance among insect populations if they are in the same classification, as they are in this case, both pyrethroids.

Further, because of Solfac’s high toxicity to fish, in 2008 the EPA required all manufacturers of cyfluthrin to include a warning label that it must not be used within 150 feet of any body of water. Michel was not aware of this restriction in Sulfac’s use, but said he would investigate further.  In El Gouna, Sulfac drifts across the water and into it, every day. 

Orascom Hotels and Development officials say that compliance with environmental law is a top priority and that all the pesticides they use, such as Solfac and lambda-cyhalothrin, have been approved for use by the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs. Orascom’s development in El Gouna, consists of numerous hotels and resorts surrounding a town with thousands of local residents, and is known for its environmentally-friendly architectural designs, construction materials and operations including the recycling of 90% of its waste. Also, in conjunction with the German Development Agency, GIZ, Orascom launched the Green Star Initiative that promotes sustainable tourism in Egypt. Regarding pesticide usage, the Green Star Initiative encourages the use of plants that naturally repel insects, such as eucalyptus, basil and lavender.

Responding to reports that pesticide workers in El Gouna have been seen dispensing chemical pesticides without protective gear, vice president of marketing for Orascom Hotel and Development, Mayar Abdel Aziz, points out that Orascom has contracted with pest management company, Sotaico, and they are solely responsible for worker safety. “We can’t promise that we’ll go to Sotaico and tell them to wear safety gloves, but they should be following safety measures.” 

Timur El Hadidi, head of environmental department at Orascom Hotels and Development, says they comply with all national environmental laws and in some cases even meet international standards.” El Hadidi says that overuse of chemical pesticides is a nation-wide problem. “I close all the windows when I hear the pesticide truck [in his Cairo neighborhood], and I try not to breathe.” Though personally, he says he would like to see chemical pesticides banned in all tourist destinations, non-toxic alternatives are not widely used in Egypt. He adds, “Orascom welcomes any suggestions that will improve their compliance with environmental standards.” El Hadidi invites anyone with questions or concerns about environmental issues in Orascom developments to contact their new environmental hotline:

Practical Advice

Mansour advises those who want to spray in their home to cover their bed with a plastic sheet first. “Then, close the windows and walk from one end of the room to the other with the spray can, then close the door for one hour. Then collect and dispose of the plastic sheet. That way, the aerosol droplets won’t settle on the bed and doesn’t penetrate through the human skin.” 

As for mosquito control in his own home, Mansour says he recommends mosquito screens and sealing the building to keep out all critters. Sally, a resident of the housing compound says the gaps in their window screens are so large, even birds have been known to fly in.  “Plus, the workmanship is terrible; if they make a hole they cover it with tape.” She said a friend in the compound replaced all her windows with sealed screens which solved her mosquito problem. 

Other non-toxic alternatives include mixing water with essential oils like eucalyptus or citronella, or neem oil, to create a natural insect repellent that can be sprayed on oneself or around the house, for temporary relief. For those who like a more direct, kill approach, new on the market is the tennis-racket shaped ‘bug zapper’ which kills insects with a small electric charge and is an effective way to clear a room of mosquitoes before bedtime. 

In the US, the pesticide control and extermination industry is a $6.8 billion industry, but with pressure from civil society it is striving to become less toxic. The EPA now recommends the people use “integrated pest management” (IPM) as the most cost-effective way to control pest populations. IPM focuses on eliminating pests’ nesting area, sources of food and water for pests, and plugging access to buildings by using caulking, steel wool in cracks and covering standing water, for starters. However, effective IMP requires a team effort involving residents, maintenance and custodial staff, pest management professionals, and the housing manager. As Code of NCAP says, “There is no silver bullet for mosquitoe control… but there are less toxic alternatives that don’t leave us with lingering questions about health effects.”

As Khaled Shaalan said, “There is an awakening, a changing consciousness and people are hungry for knowledge. Although we speak of one neighborhood in Egypt, this is a snapshot of what’s happening around the world.”  During recent online discussions about the compound’s pesticide use, a resident joked that if they can use social media to bring down a dictator, they can use it to change pesticide policy.