At least 43 kids reported sick after insecticide exposure at day care

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PORTLAND — At least 50 people — 43 children and seven adults — reported health problems after being exposed to a powerful insecticide at an Oregon day care, according to newly disclosed state records and information obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The statistics reveal publicly for the first time the scope of reported ailments at a Coos Bay childcare center, which the newsroom uncovered in May.

State officials this week declined to say whether they had confirmed all the claims, which were collected through an online survey in June and noted in an internal email. But, if verified, the incident would be Oregon’s most extensive pesticide incident at a school or day care.

Coos Bay Children’s Academy Inc. would have escaped state investigation and financial penalties if not for the newsroom’s reporting. That’s because a state network designed to identify and investigate pesticide poisonings failed to detect the April 29 spraying incident.

State officials didn’t learn about the case or launch investigations until reading about the incident from The Oregonian/OregonLive, which spoke with the parents of six children and two employees who complained about eye irritation and breathing problems.

Now, the Oregon Department of Agriculture has completed its investigation and determined the day care improperly applied an insecticide to kill fleas, and that application caused the sickness of children or adults. The state proposed fines this month totaling $1,628 against the day care and its owner, Elizabeth “Betty” Ewing, and her husband, Gerald Ewing.

The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, meanwhile, found four workplace safety violations as part of its recently completed inquiry. The agency proposed fines of $720.

But the Oregon Health Authority has yet to release its account of what happened to children who were exposed, more than four months after the incident. The agency will release details when its investigation is complete in a few weeks, spokesman Jonathan Modie said.

The agency cited the number of families who reported symptoms in a June 9 email sent to nearly two-dozen government employees, which the newsroom obtained through a public records request.

The email, written by a state health manager, stated that at least 43 households with children and one parent reported “adverse health effects,” while dozens of other families had yet to respond. At least 16 children sought medical attention, according to the email.

The magnitude is staggering but not surprising, said Dallas Brown, whose 4-year-old daughter attended the center. Her tonsils were the size of large marbles, he said, and she complained about a sore throat after exposure to the insecticide.

“It was widespread,” said Brown, who also worked at the day care as a teacher’s aide. “You can’t use a chemical like that, that powerful, against little tiny immune systems.”

The newly released investigative reports corroborate key elements of what The Oregonian/OregonLive first reported in May.

Ewing, the day care owner, asked her husband to apply an insecticide the last weekend of April to kill fleas inside the building, the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s investigation said.

Ewing told investigators she researched and wanted to purchase Tempo SC Ultra but instead said a local store “gave her the wrong product,” according to the report.

Barry Robino, chief executive officer for the Grange Co-op, disputed her account in an email this week, saying his store “did not provide ‘the wrong product.'”

The insecticide that was ultimately applied, Tempo SC Ultra Premise Spray, is approved for use in and around animal housing, warehouses and processing or packing plants. It is not approved for day cares, according to the state’s investigation.

Ewing’s husband applied the chemical with a one-gallon hand sprayer to carpets at the center, covering about two-thirds of the 9,000-square-foot space, Ewing told investigators.

The Department of Agriculture faulted the daycare and Ewing’s husband for spraying the pesticide without ensuring it could be used in a childcare facility. The spraying was performed in a “faulty, careless or negligent manner,” the state concluded, labeling the violations as “major.”

Authorities proposed a fine of $814 for Ewing’s day care and a separate penalty of $814 for Ewing’s husband. State investigators found no evidence of gross negligence or willful misconduct, which could have prompted higher penalties.

Betty Ewing did not respond to messages seeking comment this week.

The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration also found four violations, prompting $720 in proposed fines. According to OSHA, the day care failed to: keep required information about chemicals in-house; complete a hazard communication program; notify employees about the hazards of chemicals used in the workplace; or establish an effective safety committee.

Oregon OSHA interviewed seven childcare employees as part of its investigation, according to Aaron Corvin, an agency spokesman. Of those, six reported “symptoms of exposure,” he said.

State officials missed their opportunity to launch investigations and collect evidence immediately after the spraying incident because of severe communication breakdowns between government agencies.

Although the Coos County health department received reports that several children had health problems after being exposed to an insecticide, the agency did not refer that information to the Oregon Health Authority, as required under state rules. The county public health administrator, Florence Pourtal-Stevens, told The Oregonian/OregonLive in May that it was “probably” someone’s job to investigate the incident but she didn’t know which agency.

That mistake left the Oregon Health Authority unaware and unable to notify the Pesticide Analytical and Response Center, a coordinating network that includes the state agriculture and safety divisions.

As a result, state investigators didn’t collect chemical samples at the day care until May 23, nearly a month after the application and after the carpet had been professionally cleaned. The response center, in a June 1 letter, told the public it found “extremely low levels of several pesticide residues.”

The agriculture department didn’t attempt to calculate the actual levels to which children and adults were exposed. Bruce Pokarny, a spokesman for the agency, said he didn’t know if such a calculation was possible.

The Department of Agriculture considers the violations “high” in gravity because the spraying occurred in highly populated area and because it caused a confirmed illness.

Mitchell said state rules don’t allow officials to increase fines based on the number of people who got sick.

Brown, who took his daughter to the doctor after she was exposed to the insecticide, said the state’s $2,348 in proposed fines amount to a slap on the wrist for Ewing and her husband. He said the state needs a sliding scale that accounts for everyone who suffered.

“It minimizes the trauma to the children,” he said of the fines, “and the trust that people have in day care facilities.”

Oregon’s day care regulator, the Office of Child Care, did not issue any fines against Ewing or her business because it closed before an investigation could be completed.

This summer, someone posted an advertisement on Craigslist looking to hire preschool teachers for the “Coos Bay Children’s Parent Co-op,” which was supposed to open in September. Interested parties were asked to call Ewing’s phone number.