pesticide bottles

These two unlabeled bottles led law enforcement in both Carolinas to pursue a an illegal pesticide case that claimed the lives of a pair of pets.
Image Credit: Clemson University Public Service and Agriculture

CLEMSON — Most of us don’t give pesticides a lot of thought. But it doesn’t take much pondering to understand that weed killers, rat killers, insecticides, fungicides, fumigants and disinfectants have one thing in common: They can kill.

Mike Weyman thinks about pesticides all the time. His job is to investigate illegal sales and use of them in South Carolina. And he’s seeing a deadly increase in their frequency.

“The internet has made it quicker and easier for criminals to distribute illegal, adulterated and counterfeit pesticides,” said Weyman, deputy director of Clemson University’s Regulatory Services unit, which includes the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR). “The majority of these problems come from other states, therefore we have had no jurisdiction to go after the seller. But the federal government doesn’t have the resources to take on every single local case.”

A recent case on both sides of the North and South Carolina line not only illustrated that quandary, but also led to a national effort to solve it.

The case involved a North Carolina pet owner who purchased a flea and tick killer for her two adult dogs from a local store. The bottle had no label, but she said she wrote down the verbal instructions she was given: “Apply 1 cc via syringe to each dog.” She did, using the dropper included in the bottle to give her dogs one drop each orally.

Her dogs died. She had tests run to find out why. Lab results showed the product contained the common insecticide Imidacloprid, but at more than five times the recommended dose. And Imidacloprid is absorbed through the skin and is required to be administered on the nape of the animal’s neck, so it is nearly impossible for the pet to ingest it.

The case came to Clemson when North Carolina agriculture authorities traced the local store’s original purchase of the unlabeled pesticide to the Palmetto State. It served as a persuasive example when, in late August, the Association of Structural Pest Control Regulatory Officials (ASPCRO) created a task force of industry and government leaders to help states collaborate — both in regulation and in education — to help protect the health of humans, animals and the environment.

Weyman heads the national effort, with co-leader George Saxton of the Office of the Indiana State Chemist, Jim Fredericks of the National Pest Management Association, Stephanie Binns of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment and Aline DeLucia of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

“States have been addressing this case by case and the cooperation has been excellent, but the quantity of cases just continues to grow,” Weyman said. “All of a sudden there’s been a rash of counterfeits. Every single major pesticide company has had problems with counterfeiters. This will give us a protocol and practice to attack the problems together and get ahead of the curve.

“Some of this can be handled with education. It’s a case of buyer beware. Number one, you don’t know what’s in that product. China is still using products like DDT that we stopped using years ago,” he said. “You never know what you’re getting. You can’t trust these people because they’re running a criminal enterprise. They don’t care about that lady’s dogs in North Carolina. They don’t care about you.”

Weyman said consumers can look for hints on the product. If it has no label, it’s already breaking the law in the United States. If it does have a label, read it. Clues will be there.

“For instance, we have a huge problem right now with flea and tick chemicals coming in from the Far East and the United Kingdom. But there’s an easy tip-off to consumers: The United States doesn’t use the metric system,” he said. “We had one bottle from Asia that made it clear they knew what they were doing was illegal when they sold it. Written in Chinese it said: ‘Very Important: Do this with a brain do not get caught by Department of Public Health.'”

The new task force is reaching out to pesticide-related businesses as well as state and federal regulatory agencies for help tackling the problem. At its core, Weyman said, is the understanding pesticides are essential products as is their proper use.

“I’ve investigated more than my share of pesticide-related deaths in 22 years of doing this,” he said. “What I don’t want is a case where it’s not a 11-year-old dog but a 13-year-old kid. That’s what keeps me up at night.”