We are beginning a new series of posts that will profile the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Trust. Learn more about the Trust volume here. Click this link to order Trust and previous volumes.
by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Lené Gary shared “Three True Stories about Dispersion” with readers of our Trust volume, documenting in lyrical style the stories of three individuals negatively impacted by pesticide application. The third story is her own: the story of her brush with death as a teen due to organophosphate pesticide poisoning, though she did not knowingly expose herself to these pesticides. This is only the beginning of her story, however, as she has lived for the intervening two decades with extreme chemical sensitivity, seeking and finally finding a location (rural Vermont) where she can live with her condition.
Since 2004, Gary has volunteered in various capacities for the Vermont Pesticide Advisory Council (VPAC), including chairing a subcommittee on railroad vegetation management alternatives. From 2011-2016 Gary held a governor-appointed seat on VPAC representing environmental and health-related concerns of Vermonters. VPAC is a part of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, and serves as an advisory council for state agencies as well as for the executive branch of government.
One of VPAC’s responsibilities is to review pesticide permit applications and offer advice as to whether or not the permits should be approved. These permit applications mainly deal with pesticides applied to railroads, highway, and utility right-of-ways (ROWs). Gary considers her work on pesticide-related issues her “heart work,” and she has been able to help Vermont make great strides in a positive direction, such as helping author the state’s first integrated vegetation management plan for railroads, an effort she facilitated with various stakeholders, including pesticide applicators for the railroad, applicators for other entities, environmental health proponents, the railroad industry’s lobbyist, and government officials. She has also been a strong advocate for a citizen’s “right to know” and in that spirit, fully supported the development and implementation of an email and text based right-of-way herbicide notification program managed through VT Alert.
Gary recently resigned her seat on this council, hoping to devote more of her time to writing about pesticides and other environmental toxins. She also does great nature photography (you can see some of her photos in this post), and served as a volunteer photographer for the Vermont State Parks for several years. She hopes to devote more time to photography trips in the near future.
I asked Gary to share a bit more about her experience with chemical sensitivity, how it impacts her environmental practice, and how her experience relates to the topic of trust. Although most of us do not experience the level of chemical sensitivity Gary must deal with on a daily basis, her experience may offer us a “canary in a coal mine” awareness of the negative effects pesticides and other chemicals may be having on human beings and other parts of our ecosystems.
Whole Terrain: In your piece for our Trust volume, you shared the life-threatening symptoms you experienced at the age of 16, shortly after your family moved into a home built on a golf course. These symptoms were eventually diagnosed as symptoms of acute organophosphate pesticide poisoning. Can you tell us what brought this on, and some of the places we might be exposed to pesticides without realizing it?
Lené Gary: The short answer is that we don’t know exactly how I got poisoned. I hadn’t used any pesticides; I hadn’t smelled them or accidentally drank them. I in no way knew that I had been exposed. Because of that, we didn’t consider that pesticides might be part of the equation.
This was also 1991, Edmond, Oklahoma. People weren’t talking about pesticides like they do now—there just wasn’t awareness that pesticides might be harmful. It wasn’t until one of my doctors referred us to a Dallas-based specialist known for his ability to pinpoint unusual health issues that we found out that my symptoms had been caused by acute organophosphate pesticide poisoning, revealed through blood work.
So you asked what brought this on…
What we do know is that the golf course we lived on made several pesticide applications in a short period of time with chemicals that affect acetylcholinesterase levels in the body. These families of pesticides can act in an additive way, increasing the overall toxicity of both.
We also know that the moving company that transported our belongings from Houston to Edmond, OK used what people often refer to as “bug bombs” or insecticide. (At least in 1991, these moving companies were known to use bug bombs while the trailers were packed with people’s belonging in an effort to prevent transporting insects from one location to another.)
We don’t know, and it’s likely we’ll never know why my body reacted the way it did. Because of the fact that there’s no easy answer as to how I got poisoned, only that cumulative exposures were clearly a factor, I always encourage people to be mindful about their exposures to pesticides and reduce them whenever possible.
Symptoms caused by pesticide exposure can be easily confused with other ailments, which is part of the reason I believe statistics about poisonings may not always present as accurate a picture as we might hope. According to the EPA’s book, The Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisonings, common early symptoms of organophosphate pesticide exposure include headache, nausea, and dizziness. Muscle twitching, weakness, tremor, vomiting, and diarrhea are among some of the signs of worsening symptoms. Psychiatric symptoms, such as depression, memory loss, and confusion are also included in the manual. Many of these early symptoms, such as vomiting, can be easily attributed to other causes such as just having “a 24-hour bug.”
Exposures to pesticides can happen just about anywhere: going to the library (maybe they’ve just sprayed for silverfish, an insect that likes nibbling on paper), the movie theater (just treated for bed bugs or cockroaches), or picnicking in the park (many lawns are treated with herbicides and insecticides). You might not think of the danger of pesticides in restaurants, school cafeterias and dormitories, trains, airplanes (especially if you’re traveling internationally; the cabin is often required by law to be treated before take off and after landing, depending on the locale), and buses, bowling alleys, hotel rooms, and even summer concerts outdoors (many venues mosquito fog their grounds before an event kicks off). Even something as simple as petting a dog in town could lead to significant exposure depending on whether that dog has been treated for fleas (many organophosphates have now been banned due to their toxicity, but one remains in use in pet sprays and flea collars. Read more about this and possible alternatives here). Of course, there are crop dusters that spray agricultural plots, but you might not think about pesticides sprayed over some bays for oyster farming, for example, or over forests for gypsy moths. Or how about the spraying by helicopter over land recently clear cut in the practice of logging?
WT: Can you tell us a bit about how your chemical sensitivity impacts your day-to-day life?
LG: Well, I rarely leave my house more than two or three times a week, which includes social commitments and errand running. I work from home, and have most of the time since 1991.
Right now I’m talking with you from my mom’s house because my neighbors are having an insecticide applied to their yard. I can still have very severe reactions to exposure, so I can’t be home today. The good news is that I have a really nice relationship with the company that does most of the commercial spraying in our neighborhood, and they call me ahead of time to let me know when they’re going to be spraying nearby. There are also times in which neighbors apply their own chemicals. I never get notice on those. I often just leave the house very sick, unsure of what’s happening, where the chemical is coming from, and when it might end. Twenty-five years later, my life continues to revolve around other people’s spraying schedules.
In addition to pesticides, one of my greatest limitations in the human world is the prevalence of fragrance. This one takes a great toll on my social life. The scent added to someone’s hair balm or lotion, lipstick, deodorant, detergent, or body powder can be a significant problem. Since my sensitivities began when I was 16, I’ve had to grow up trying to navigate these things while dating. Eeek! Try asking a first date not to wear cologne, deodorant, or aftershave (and imagine yourself cringing inside knowing that you really need to ask him, in addition to these requests, to wash his clothes in fragrance-free detergent and skip his fabric softener). These products are also issues when visiting family or having my family in. My older sister came to visit last October. She shipped clothes to me ahead of time at my request so that I could try to decontaminate them from the fragrance of her fabric softener and detergent. I had such a hard time handling the clothes—my skin immediately absorbed the fragrance—that I just decided to buy her new clothes for her entire trip and wash them. The chemicals in detergents and fabric softeners somehow bond the fragrance to the fabric.
Did you know that even food contains artificial fragrance? You know how your whole car can smell like watermelon when one person in the backseat chews one piece of watermelon flavored bubblegum? That’s perfume.
Sometimes people want to help. They buy products for themselves or me that are marketed as “unscented,” but unscented products usually contain a masking fragrance. What they really need to look for is a product specifically labeled “fragrance-free.”
Even if you’re not overly sensitive to fragrances, it’s worth reducing the use of them in your daily life. Our wastewater treatment plants can’t fully remove them, so those fragrance chemicals are showing up in fish tissue. I think fragrance is a major issue that’s overlooked when we talk about environmental pollutants.
In trying to find a safe place to live, I relocated over 30 times in eleven years before I found Vermont. My love for the natural world, the pictures I take, my interest in identifying wildflowers and spending time in my canoe, all of those things really came into my life when I got to Vermont because it was the first place I could be outside and be well. Vermont isn’t perfect, and there are plenty of pesticide issues here, but I still believe we have some of the most progressive policies in the country.
WT: What are you trying to do to work against the dispersion of harmful chemicals? And what can the rest of us do to reduce our exposure?
LG: On a really basic level, I think just being honest and open about my own circumstance helps others think about these things. Over the years, I’ve had people have ask me if I’m contagious, because after spending time with me, they start noticing things like fragrances in people’s clothes and that their Yankee Candles give them headaches. I assure them that I’m not contagious, though paying attention to one’s environment and one’s body, and the conversation between the two, is a powerful thing. I hope to write more about chemical sensitivity in the future for this same reason.
The best way to find out what you are being exposed to is to ask. Call your favorite restaurant or your movie theater. Simply ask what their extermination schedule is—let them know you would like to reduce your exposure—and then mark your calendar. Large hotels often have extermination schedules as well, but if they’re quite large, they may only spray a few floors of the hotel per month. You can easily request a room on a floor that hasn’t been recently treated. If you want to know whether your city and/or your county mosquito fogs, start by calling your city and county health departments (each state is different). Some may recommend you contact a “vector control” office for more information. Some entities may be willing to observe a buffer around your home or workplace, turning off the sprayer for a certain distance from your address. Some states have prior notification programs in which you can register your address with the agency of agriculture and then receive notifications before commercial applicators apply pesticides on adjacent lands. Some states have posting requirements for public places—both natural world places, such as parks or trails, and urban places such as public buildings. If you want to find out more about your state’s posting requirements, you can usually get information through your state’s agency of agriculture.
As far as what I do to more actively work against pesticide exposure in a larger way, my philosophy of activism has been pretty different from, say, Greenpeace, but I appreciate that there are people out there using different tactics. When we each use our own voice, we have a greater chance of making progress. For example, when I was advocating for reduced pesticide use with the railroads, there was one activist threatening to chain herself to the door of the ag agency on a hunger strike. Taking such an extreme position allowed me to walk in and seem reasonable, moderate, even though I was advocating for a reduction in chemical use. In that circumstance, I believe we moved in the right direction through relationship building and compromise. That conversation may have been completely different had I been the only one pushing for fewer pesticides to be used along the railroads.
Since the age of 17, my approach to effecting positive change has started with relationship building. I really don’t think the majority of people make choices that they believe are harmful to other people. The person who’s spraying the railroad is not my enemy. He’s spraying the railroad because he believes he’s protecting public safety by reducing the risk of a train derailment. That’s big. We hear about derailments and their consequent hazardous material spills regularly these days. Some of these vegetation managers feel as committed to public safety as the people who advocate for a chemical-free right-of-ways.
WT: It sounds like you’re trusting the humanity of people you encounter, and that you have some common ground with them. That brings me to my next question. You wrote about these issues for our Trust volume. What connected the idea of trust and the topic of chemical sensitivity and pesticide application for you?
LG: I remember someone asking me if I believed people should trust the government to protect them. The more I thought about that question, the more complicated I found it to answer. I began thinking about all of the situations in which the regulations should, and possibly could, function well, could be protective, if only members of the public were willing to be more accountable to each other, if only the doctors were more informed about chemical risks, if property values weren’t influenced by non-point source polluters, if our society were structured in a way to encourage value for the commons we share, or if access to clean resources were equal.
Trust, for me, is an amorphous thing. Something I can’t get my hands around. Something that feels so deep, so real, so grounding, centering, so essential to our recovery as a nation, a planet, a people…that I wanted to attempt singing of its complexity.
And trusting someone to believe in the seriousness of my illness—asking them to trust the integrity of something they can’t necessarily see—has to be one of the greatest acts of trust I’ve ever practiced, and it’s daily. And, it’s essential in order for me to live.
My wellness often lies in the hands—the trustworthiness—of others. For example, I developed asthma at the age of 30 when a good friend didn’t believe his skin cleanser could cause me a reaction. I went outside to get some fresh air after his cleanser had spilled in his bag, triggering what I could only describe as a coughing attack. I asked him not to bring the product or bag back in, and I promised to take him shopping to find a product I could tolerate to replace it with. While I was gone, he brought the product back into my home and used it without telling me. Within minutes of my return, I was being driven to the emergency room with my first ever and life-threatening asthma attack. He later admitted to me that he had in fact brought the cleanser into my house when I left, using it, not believing it could be the source of my reaction. I’ve had asthma ever since.
WT: What are you working on now?
LG: Years ago when I was working with Sandra Steingraber at an Orion Magazine summer writing workshop, she told me I needed to read The Grapes of Wrath before writing my memoir. It’s a big book. This spring, though, I began working through my list of “to-read” books like that. And, WOW! (I’d read it again and again.) My next big project includes writing my own big book.
Bio: Lené Gary lives in Norwich, Vermont. She holds a master of fine arts from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has worked on pesticide-related issues for over 20 years and often writes about the natural world. Her recent works appear in the following anthologies: Thirty Days: The Best of Tupelo Press 30/30 Project’s First Year, Please Do Not Remove: A Collection Celebrating Vermont Literature and Libraries, Open Doors: Stories from Wildlife Nation, and Birchsong: Poetry Centered in Vermont. When she’s not writing, she can be found paddling her well-worn Mad River canoe.