A Toxic Chemical Poisons the Home—and the Hopes—of a New York Family
On the morning of March 25 a bulldozer arrived at Timberpoint Road in East Islip, N.Y. and plowed into the home of Jeffrey Lever and his family. Again and again the machine backed up and, amid a groaning of gears, rumbled forward, methodically smashing the split-level—and its contents—into a twisted pile of concrete and wood garnished with toys, books and clothing. Neighbors gawked at the sight—in three days no evidence of a house remained, just a plot of freshly smoothed dirt. The bulldozer had turned the home of four people into a vacant lot, creating in the process a perverse monument to the modern age of chemistry. The fall of the house of Lever began when termites were found there last September. That discovery quickly escalated into a chemical nightmare. Lever, a 27-year-old New York City fireman, had paid the Allied Termite Control company $300 to rid his home of the pests. The exterminator, says Lever, sprayed a chemical in the basement and into holes drilled in the walls of the den.
A month later Lever read a newspaper story about the dangers of an anti-termite chemical called chlordane, which, according to an Environmental Protection Agency spokesman, is used to treat about 1.5 million homes each year. Worried about the health of his pregnant wife, Dorothea, 27, and his two children, Katie, now 3, and Timothy, 15 months, Lever called the exterminator. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, I didn’t use chlordane, I used aldrin,’ ” Lever remembers. “Little did we know that aldrin is worse.”
Still concerned, Lever phoned the Suffolk County Health Department to inquire further. “When I told a doctor what had happened, he said, ‘Leave immediately,’ ” Lever recalls. “He told us not to bring anything with us.”
Aldrin, Lever soon learned, is similar to, but more toxic than, chlordane. Both chemicals have been found to cause cancer in laboratory mice, although their low-level long-term effects on human beings are unknown. “We don’t consider this to be a major national problem,” EPA spokesman Al Heier says. “We’ve had only about 100 illnesses related to chlordane use reported since 1966. We consider them both safe when properly applied. You have to weigh the risks and benefits. Both chemicals will effectively control termite infestation for up to 20 years.”
In 1974 the Environmental Protection Agency banned most uses of aldrin in the U.S., but did not outlaw it for subsurface termite control. Lever charges, however, that the exterminator sprayed aldrin inside the house, leaving a puddle of the chemical on the basement floor. It also ran down the den walls and seeped into the rug. “I remember being concerned right after the exterminator left with how wet the rug was,” Lever says. “Timothy was crawling all over the floor. This was the room the kids played in. This was where all their toys were.” The exterminating company declined to respond to Lever’s charges.
The Lever family left their home on Oct. 28, about a month after the spraying, and spent the next five weeks alternating between the homes of Jeffrey’s and Dorothea’s parents. Finally, in December, their insurance company gave the Levers enough money to rent new quarters while inspectors tested their house.
But the nightmare was not yet over. Soon afterward Dorothea miscarried. “That had never happened to me before,” she says. “The doctors think it was probably caused by exposure to the chemical, but they don’t know for sure.” Then the children, suffering from periodic dizziness and nausea, were tested and found to have possible liver ailments. Finally, in February, the inspectors hired by the Levers’ insurance company reported that the house was uninhabitable, and recommended that it—and everything in it—be destroyed. For the $80,000 house and all its contents, the Levers received $65,000 from their insurers. “I still can’t believe it,” says Lever. “We have nothing left.”
The Levers, meanwhile, are crowded into a two-bedroom house so small that new mattresses and a crib are still stacked in the dining room. They’re shopping for a new home but are finding nothing in the area they can afford. While they plan a lawsuit against Allied, they remain frightened about their future. Says Dorothea: “We’re worried about our children’s health—and ours.”
Other families are worried, too. When the Lever story hit newspaper front pages, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation was deluged with calls. “In one week we got more than 3,000 complaints and inquiries about pesticides used in the home,” said regional DEC director Don Middleton. “We have a major problem on our hands.”