By Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill
One Thursday last September, a crop-dusting plane swooped down over a cornfield in Western New York and dipped below the tree line, spraying an insecticide engineered to paralyze the nervous system of agricultural pests called earworms. After several passes, the plane climbed, banked sharply, and flew away.
The event, captured on this video by a local resident, is noteworthy for when and where it happened: on a school day, on a field adjoining LeRoy Junior-Senior High School in Western New York, where an outbreak of tic disorders among 18 students, mostly girls, would soon gain national attention. By then two girls had developed symptoms, according to the state Health Department – one in May 2011, the other earlier in September – but the bulk of the cases would follow, including two more the next week.
“This cornfield is adjacent to the school property and uphill from the school,” the neighbor who took the video wrote in an e-mail. “The fields in our area are dusted at least twice a year.”
The “dust” that settled that day is called Tundra. Its active ingredient, bifenthrin, has been linked at high doses in animal studies to some of the same symptoms experienced by the LeRoy students. U.S. regulators regard it as much safer than earlier generations of pesticides such as DDT, but it was banned in Europe until just last week due to environmental concerns.
Most of the LeRoy girls were diagnosed by a local neurology clinic with a psychiatric illness called conversion disorder, a finding the state Health Department endorsed despite the protests of parents who said their daughters were not emotionally disturbed. Several investigations, including one made public last month, found no evidence of environmental contamination.
In May 2011, a ban on all pesticide use on school grounds went into effect in New York State. But the investigators did not appear to consider the possibility of pesticide drift or runoff from neighboring property in the intensively farmed region, or test for currently used pesticides like bifenthrin – only ones banned decades ago. There is no evidence that the crop-dusting on September 22, or any other date, was part of any investigation. (Our inquiries to the school district and the environmental consulting firm have not yet been answered.)
The video, shot by Leroy Township resident Don Dessert from his nearby home, was sent in March to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. We obtained it last week through a Freedom of Information Law request, along with supporting documents. In an e-mail accompanying the video, Dessert wrote that it showed “a crop duster spraying the cornfield on the other side of the tree stand from my house.”
Dessert attached a fact sheet on agricultural practices for corn to illustrate “what part of the chemistry set is put on corn crops. Makes me want to find some organic corn …” He included a photo diagram showing his location in relation to the field and the school (click to enlarge photo):
Just below the cornfield in this photo looking south is a retention basin and the girls’ softball field. In some aerial photographs, including the one on the school’s Web site, the basin is full of water. The period between April and September of last year was the rainiest ever in Rochester and Buffalo, the two big cities to the east and west of Leroy.
As we wrote in February, “School officials who say environmental factors can’t be responsible for the outbreak of tics at the Junior/Senior High School might want to check last year’s record rainfalls – and the flood-prone ground right under their feet.
“Parts of the school grounds -- including athletic fields -- are right on top of a federally designated FEMA Flood Hazard Area. … The zone cuts right across the girls’ softball diamond.” (In this photo, north is toward the top of the frame, and the field that was sprayed September 22 is visible at the bottom.)
Officials told us then that the school’s pesticide log was examined as part of the initial investigation but, because no pesticides were applied on school grounds during the preceding year, pesticides were ruled out as a factor. (Pesticide use was banned on all public school grounds in the state as of May 18, 2011.)
The Department of Environmental Conservation’s internal notes obtained through the FOIA request show it ruled out the crop-dusting as a cause of the outbreak.
“Staff assisted with a response to a citizen report of corn cropdusting in Leroy (T), Genesee County, where several students at the local high school had experienced symptoms of an unexplained disorder,” according to a June entry in its incident log. “Investigation determined that an aerial application to a corn crop had occurred at the location alleged in the citizen report. And while a Region 3 inspection of the applicator’s business records did turn up an unrelated paperwork violation, nothing about the Leroy corn application was in violation. Likewise, there had been at the time of the application no complaints from the school or anyone else that they had noticed or been affected by it. The information obtained by the Department was provided to the citizen who initially made the report.”
The cornfield is owned by Donald Pangrazio and managed by Harris Farms, according to the DEC, and the pilot was Theodore Kutschera of Callicoon, N.Y. He was cited in a letter by DEC for failing to maintain a required certification. The department said it would not take enforcement action, but warned “further violations will be prosecuted.”
It is unknown whether the school district, the state Health Department, or the outside consulting firm, Leader Professional Services, was aware of the incident or the report. Last month, Leader completed an extensive, $70,000 report that found no current environmental hazards.
"The air, soil and surface water sampling conducted at the [Junior High/Senior High] site did not identify chemicals at concentrations which could be considered to have health impacts to students, teachers, administrative staff or the public occupying the site," the Leader report said.
Based on that, LeRoy Superintendent Kim Cox wrote district families in June: “I have excellent news to announce concerning the results of the air, soil and surface water testing of the Junior/Senior High School building and grounds by Leader Professional Services. Leader has compiled an extensive report concerning the testing undertaken and subsequent analysis, concluding there are no adverse health impacts from contaminants in the air, soil or water in or around our high school campus.”
Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, vice president at Dent Neurologic Institute and the neurologist who diagnosed many of the girls with conversion disorder, went further, saying the results confirmed his diagnosis and treatment. (Only one student still has symptoms, he told The Buffalo News in June.) Mechtler said Erin Brockovich, the activist who raised the possibility of toxic effects from a train derailment in the township or other causes, should “now go on national TV and take back her dramatic speculation about environmental toxins being the root cause of the disorders,” according to the newspaper.
Brockovich was brought in by some of the parents who scoffed at the conversion disorder diagnosis, which has its origins in the late 19th century Freudian concept of “hysteria,” in which patients, most often young women, supposedly convert mental trauma into physical symptoms. When that happens to several members of a group at once, it is called mass hysteria, or in modern parlance, a mass psychogenic event. (Based on research for our 2010 book, “The Age of Autism,” we believe the illness doesn’t really exist. See “The Crazy History of Conversion Disorder.”)
Conversion disorder is often described as a diagnosis of exclusion, in which physical causes are methodically ruled out first. Strikingly, Tundra, the pesticide sprayed on the field, has been shown to cause symptoms in animals that parallel those suffered by the girls, who in addition to tics had trouble walking and standing and suffered breathing problems, strange sensations, seizures and blackouts.
Bifenthrin, the active chemical in the pesticide, was banned in Europe until last week because of safety concerns.
When fed to rats at high doses, symptoms included “tremors, clonic [rapid muscle contraction/relaxation] convulsions, twitching, incoordination, staggered gait, splayed hind limbs, atypical posture,” according to a Technical Fact Sheet from the National Pesticide Information Center.
Bifenthrin and other high-tech pesticides have been cited as possible culprits in the collapse of bee colonies around the country. In a well-known study, a California researcher found that flea-killing pet shampoos containing pyrethrins – the class of chemicals to which bifenthrin belongs – might be linked to a risk of autism when handled by pregnant mothers.
None of that means the crop-dusting on September 22 caused any of the tic disorders, and federal regulators and the chemicals’ manufacturer say it is much safer than earlier generations of pesticides such as DDT. But the incident points to a very active pesticide-application program at the same time and place as the tic outbreak, and raises questions about why current pesticides—which are designed to disrupt the chemical and neurological functions of living things -- were not considered.
The LeRoy schools’ own report in January seemed to acknowledge the possibility of contamination from adjacent property. It noted that New York State has adopted a Neighbor Notification under which counties can require pesticide users to inform neighboring landowners in advance.
“To date, Genesee County has not adopted a local law to comply with the Neighbor Notification Law,” the school’s report says. “Accordingly, school neighbors are not required to notify the school of any pesticides being used.”
Leader Professional Services tested for DDT, which was banned in the United States in 1972. Small amounts of DDT and its breakdown product, DDE, were detected on two soccer fields at the school, Leader reported, as was another banned pesticide.
“Pesticides were found in the samples taken,” Leader reported, “but such pesticides are no longer in use in the United States as such use has been prohibited. … The levels of same were significantly below the residential use criteria; such detections were not unexpected given the likely previous use of the JHSH site for agricultural purposes.”
In LeRoy, several of the girls whose families rejected the conversion disorder diagnosis obtained independent medical diagnoses that included a post-strep nervous system infection called PANDAS, as well as Lyme Disease. The New Jersey doctor who made several of those diagnoses, Rosario Trifiletti, examined the girls without charge; he said that such infectionsß did not rule out a possible environmental co-factor. One could exacerbate the other and lead to a new clinical syndrome, Trifiletti said.
Dan Olmsted is Editor and Mark Blaxill is Editor at Large of Age of Autism. They are co-authors of “The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic. E-mail: Olmsted.firstname.lastname@example.org