PASCAGOULA, Miss. — They came when called. They honored their guarantees. The roach men promised no bug on Earth could skitter away alive from their stuff. They were sloppy, but always thorough. Even when their spray ran wild, leaving fetid yellow trails on coats, walls and carpets, the poison killed.
It was the secret of their success. And it explained how the handiwork of a few unlicensed exterminators, unknown to each other and invisible to government regulators, grew into an environmental disaster that spread as relentlessly as vermin crawling inside masonry crevices, popping up in Mississippi Gulf Coast trailer parks, then in New Orleans shanties, then in crumbling two-flats in Chicago's poorest neighborhoods.
Down here, retired shipyard worker Paul Walls Sr. sprayed hundreds of homes and businesses, leaving cards with drawings of belly-up roaches: "Call on Paul. He'll kill them all." On Chicago's West Side, where roach armies invade bedrooms and roost in cookware, Reuben Brown was welcomed for his "Mississippi stuff." Only Southern emigres recognized his spray's familiar stench as the malodorous fog that rolls in from cotton fields deloused of boll weevils. Some were so excited to find "cotton poison" up north they hoarded it in milk jugs and spray bottles.
For years, perhaps decades, hauling their noxious syrup along the Delta highways that poor black sharecroppers and bluesmen once took to make new lives, roach men sprayed thousands of Southern and Midwestern homes and businesses. But not until environmental authorities discovered last fall that 500 mobile homes, churches and day-care centers in this coastal town had been laced with methyl parathion--a lethal farm pesticide and chemical cousin of the deadly nerve gas sarin--did they suspect they faced a sprawling toxic menace on the scale of Times Beach and Love Canal.
Over the last year, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent $69 million to decontaminate more than 700 homes and businesses, stripping their innards or replacing them entirely. More than $100 million likely will be spent--the highest single-year expenditure of federal dollars on a toxic cleanup. Six roach men, Walls and Brown among them, have been prosecuted for hazardous and unlicensed spraying. Despite his age, Walls, 62, was sentenced to 6 1/2 years, the highest prison term ever meted by a federal judge for environmental crimes. Brown has pleaded guilty to two similar counts and faces a November sentencing.
They were functionally illiterate, the roach men claimed in their trials, unable to read the detailed warnings that came with the poison they bought. They rarely wore masks or took precautions against poisoning themselves. Even the macabre skulls and crossbones drawn on every methyl parathion canister, one defense lawyer said, meant little to men who "could walk into a hardware store and fill up a shopping cart with household poisons."
But the roach men were well aware they were not spraying common pesticides, environmental officials countered. The sprayers lied in obtaining licenses to buy farm pesticides. And they ranged all over the Deep South, rarely buying cotton poison from the same dealer in order not to raise suspicion. "This stuff was designed to kill and they knew it," said Jeremy Korzenick, a Justice Department attorney who specializes in pesticide-related prosecutions.
Still, after testing pesticide levels in nearly 6,000 homes in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Texas, officials are awed by how much they do not know. They wonder how many thousands more victims were sprayed with methyl parathion, how the roach men--mostly a small band of black retirees--jeopardized so many lives for so long without stirring up notice. And they can only guess the extent of long-term perils faced by families exposed to cotton poison.
"When you have so many unknowns, you can't just sit and wait for the studies to come in," said Dave Starr, an EPA specialist in Chicago. "We were dealing with an incredibly powerful organophosphate here. Once people are out of harm's way, you can spend all the time you want getting answers."
Many Displaced Appear Healthy
For everything officials do know, it seems, there is an accompanying mystery: More than 2,000 people have relocated to temporary dwellings while EPA Superfund crews in moon suits and respirator masks swarmed into their homes. Yet despite complaints of flu-like symptoms, many of the displaced appear healthy.
No deaths or serious injuries have been linked officially to cotton poison. There are not enough credible studies to offer cause for alarm, but doctors fear that repeated high doses may pose lasting neurological consequences to children. And in private, health officials acknowledge that as many as a half-dozen fatalities have been investigated for possible connections to methyl parathion spraying.