When she learned that she was pregnant Vicki Herb was overjoyed. She was determined to give her child the best start and did everything she could to ensure that he would be born safe and healthy.
‘She even gave up chocolate cake, which she loved,’ said her husband Glen, ‘and went to yoga classes with other mothers-to-be. We read every book there was on childcare. We knew we were expecting a boy and we decided to call him Joshua. He was our first child.’
Vicki and Glen Herb prepared a room for the new baby. They painted the walls blue and set up a crib by a window in their house in Charleston, West Virginia.
Joshua Herb was born a healthy, happy baby. But it wasn’t long before his parents noticed that something was terribly wrong with their child.
‘Joshua started acting as though his stomach hurt. He was unable to keep food down. No matter what we tried, it came straight up again. Also his reflexes seemed to have stopped functioning.’
Josh had blisters all over him and he started excreting a yellow fluid through the pores of his skin.
The Herbs took Joshua to the doctor, they learned that his diaphragm had stopped working properly so that when he breathed, his lungs moved out of synch with each other.
‘I came home crying and I couldn’t stop crying for a week. I said to Glen, “We’ve got to find out what’s doing this to Joshua and stop it. I don’t care how much it costs.”
The Herbs consulted several other doctors, all of whom were baffled. “One of them said he had a virus; another said he had a milk allergy, etc.”
“Now we know it was because he couldn’t breathe,” said his mom in a later interview.
‘We were out of our minds with worry and racking our brains to think what could have happened,’ said Glen.
‘One day I picked up Joshua’s teddy bear and was cuddling it. It smelled sort of chemical. Then we remembered that once a month, a local pest control company came round to spray our house for ants, roaches and other bugs.’
‘It wasn’t long after we brought Joshua home from the hospital, maybe just three weeks later, that the exterminator had been round.’
The Herbs, suspecting, that their son had been poisoned by pesticides, contacted the exterminator. He told them that he had followed his usual routine, coating baseboards and windowsills throughout the house with a pesticide called Dursban mixed with another organophosphate pesticide Propetamphos – including, it turned out, the bedroom where the newborn lay sleeping.
Josh’s crib was right below the windowsill, the exterminator was not aware that Josh was in the room when he did it. By the time he sprayed the windowsill, it was too late.
‘We’d been going to all these doctors. Some of them advised more tests, some said not to worry it would go away. Not one seemed to know what was wrong. But they should have known, because things like this had been happening for years. The doctors knew about it. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) knew about it. They knew exactly how dangerous it was. Why didn’t they warn people? Why were we encouraged to go on and on using that terrible dangerous stuff?’
The active ingredient in Dursban is a chemical called chlorpyrifos, which is one of the most common pesticides used by pest control companies. Every year in the United States, there are thousands of cases of chlorpyrifos poisoning. An EPA analysis found that the chemical was suspected in 17,771 incidents reported to U.S. poison-control centers between 1993 and 1996. More than half the cases involved children under 6.
Symptoms include headaches, nausea, muscle weakness, loss of reflexes, vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhoea, dizziness, tiredness, leg cramps, nerve damage, asthma, and birth defects.
Dursban is produced by Dow Chemical. Dow began manufacturing Dursban 1965 and advertised Dursban for use as a household pest controller, for lawn care, schools, day-care centers, office buildings, on farms and use by pest and termite exterminators.
Though well aware of chlorpyrifos’s dangers to health, Dow said Dursban lacked “long term (health) effects” and claimed that there was “no evidence of significant risk to the environment.”
In 1995 the EPA caught Dow hiding hundreds of health related lawsuits involving chlorpyrifos and fined the company $876,000 for belatedly reporting 288 possible adverse reactions.
That same year , Mohamed Abou-Donia, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University reported that Dursban could be more toxic in combination with other chemicals than alone, or more toxic in repeated small doses than in a single large one. “It should not be used inside the home,”he said.
‘We had soon run through our savings and we didn’t know what we would do because Joshua couldn’t even breathe without help,’ says Vicki.
Faced with the traumatic injury and lifetime of expensive medical bills, the family decided to sue Dow Chemical to recover some of the damages.
At first, the company followed its normal course of action and prepared to fight the case in court.
The Herbs’ lawyers told them that Dow was refusing to accept any liability. In addition to bearing the huge medical costs, Joshua’s family would now also have to find the money to fight Dow in court. Dow claimed that chlorpyrifos alone could not have produced the devastating effects that Joshua had suffered.
‘We were pretty much at the end of our resources and at our wits’ end too. Then we heard about the work done by Professor Abou-Donia at Duke University,’ says Glen.
Dow changed its mind when animal tests performed by Professor Abou-Donia showed that chlorpyrifos, when combined with the other chemical, caused “catastrophic destruction” of the nervous system in lower doses than it would have alone.
At that point, the company decided to settle with the family for more than $10 million although the exact terms of the out-of-court settlement are not known because Dow made the family sign a confidentiality agreement.
Dow AgroSciences counsel Relford doesn’t regret the decision to settle: ‘We were facing a jury trial in West Virginia, in state court, involving a five-and-a-half year-old little boy who was paraplegic and respirator-dependent,” he says. “And we couldn’t look at that case . . . and not have a huge amount of sympathy for Joshua Herb.’
Nor, presumably, could the jury.
In June 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the banning of most uses of Dursban, also known as chlorpyrifos, because of concerns the pesticide was harmful to the public health, particularly children.
‘The cockroaches are celebrating,’ said a Dow spokesman.
After the US household ban, Dow Chemical simply switched production and sales of Dursban overseas, particularly targetting poorer countries with lax regulatory systems.
In India, Dow produces and distributes Dursban, claiming it is safe for people and its sales literature claimed Dursban has “an established record of safety regarding humans and pets.”
Today, at ten years old – an age when most kids can swing a bat or kick a soccer ball – Joshua is confined to his home with 24-hour nursing care and must use an oxygen system to breath. Since he was poisoned as an infant, Joshua has experienced no muscle growth, no nerve development, and no bone growth.