WASHINGTON — At first, Ellen Warmbrunn thought the strong chemical odors permeating her Claremont home would disappear, certainly within hours after an exterminator treated her garage for termites.
But chlordane, a pesticide that has been used on 30 million American homes since 1947, was just beginning to affect the California mother and her two teen-age daughters.
Within days, Warmbrunn began suffering from extreme fatigue, headaches, nausea and other flu-like symptoms. In time, she developed a short-term memory loss and a tingling in her legs and arms. Months later, one of her daughters came down with pneumonia, and the other experienced crippling arthritis in her wrist.
Warmbrunn initially did not suspect the termite treatment, even though she later learned that the pesticide had been improperly sprayed into her home. But she soon grew less skeptical: Within a year, she and her daughters abandoned the house and destroyed most of their belongings, which had been contaminated with the chemical.
This week, Warmbrunn and other plaintiffs--including several national environmental organizations--are expected to seek an injunction in federal court here to immediately halt sales of chlordane and a related compound known as heptachlor.
Although she has reached a hefty settlement with the manufacturer and exterminator for her medical bills and her property, Warmbrunn believes that nationwide protection is needed.
"People have to realize that when they apply this pesticide to the bugs in their home, they're also applying it to themselves," she said. "Chlordane is a real hazard."
Officials of the Velsicol Chemical Corp. of Rosemont, Ill., the sole manufacturer of chlordane, insist that there are no health risks from the product if it is applied properly. A spokesman said the company expects to resume production of chlordane soon when the new tests prove its safety, adding: "It will be just like when this product first appeared. It met a need then and it meets a need now."
But complaints such as Warmbrunn's have become increasingly familiar in recent years as scientific knowledge about the chemical's possible health effects has grown. Federal and private studies have shown that it causes cancer in laboratory animals and other tests suggest that humans who inhale it may experience birth defects, leukemia, anemia, brain cancer and lung disorders.
But as the evidence from studies has piled up--and the number of people who say they have been harmed by the product continues to grow--the federal government has been slow to act.
The Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of chlordane on crops nine years ago but only moved this year to halt its use in homes. Last month, EPA officials announced that Velsicol had agreed to halt further production until new tests determine whether the product can be used safely.
But the agreement did not cover the millions of gallons of chlordane still being sold in hardware stores, lawn-care centers and other outlets across the nation, an inventory that could last for 90 days, according to EPA officials.
While several pest control firms said they are halting use of the product, critics note that they are not legally bound to do anything as long as current supplies last. The government has recommended, but not required, that the companies use several alternative termite killers that are now available.
"The EPA has said it's not OK to make this product, because it may cause cancer, but it's OK for millions of people to keep using it," said Jay Feldman, director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. "This decision says a lot about how the government regulates pesticides these days."
It has also focused attention on a controversial section of the nation's pesticide control law that requires the EPA to indemnify--or reimburse--chemical companies for the cost of any products that are banned and immediately taken off the market.
Critics estimate that it would cost $50 million to $60 million to remove chlordane from stores, and they believe the agency was hesitant to take such decisive action because of the cost. EPA officials deny that this played any part in their handling of the chemical, contending that there is simply not enough evidence to justify an immediate ban of the product.
"What we have done today is protect the American consumer," said John Moore, an EPA official in charge of pesticide regulation, in announcing the agreement with Velsicol. "We have done essentially what needs to be accomplished."
Chlordane, a colorless liquid, is typically injected into the soil, pumped through foundations or placed in dirt-covered trenches around a building. The pesticide is used widely because it does not break down quickly and can keep killing insects for years. Humans are exposed to the chemical when its residues vaporize and seep into a building, usually through air ducts or spaces underneath a house.