MTA bus

Riders board a Metro Rapid bus. Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses are sprayed quarterly for pests,but severe infestations can require additional applications. (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles Times / June 17, 2013)


Los Angeles County bus drivers say they are regularly becoming ill — sometimes while behind the wheel — from pesticides sprayed inside their vehicles by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

At least 14 Metro drivers are pursuing workers' compensation claims, and more than 110 have signed a petition that demands a halt to the spraying, according to their attorney. Some operators are on medical leave, and a few say they have left Metro because of repeated exposure.

"You can be driving your bus and get hit with the symptoms," said Frank Portillo, a 23-year coach operator who retired in March, sooner than planned, because of medical issues he believes are pesticide related. "It's a problem for those on the early shift, but you can breathe the fumes throughout the day. The smell is all over."

Three drivers — part of Metro's most heavily used transit system, shuttling 1 million passengers a day with a fleet of 2,500 buses — have lodged complaints with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health since 2011. They allege they have suffered severe headaches, dizziness, breathing problems, nausea and irritation to their eyes and skin from four brands of pesticides.

All can be harmful if they are swallowed, are inhaled or come into contact with the skin or eyes, research shows. Extreme exposure can be fatal.

Peter Melton, a spokesman for Cal/OSHA, said the agency is investigating whether Metro has violated regulations designed to prevent workers from being exposed to harmful substances. He declined to comment further because the inquiry is pending.

Although the drivers say they occasionally hear complaints from passengers about odors, there is no indication any riders have reported health problems as a result.

Nevertheless, advocates for transit users, such as the Bus Riders Union, are concerned that passengers might be getting ill as well, especially the elderly and children, who might be more sensitive to chemicals.

"If the drivers are getting sick, that is enough indication that it is not safe," said Sunyoung Yang, a union spokesperson. After an application, "In the morning, when the buses start running, there are some acrid smells. If there are unsafe chemicals inside the buses, there should be precautionary measures."

Portillo identified one of his former passengers as Eugene Rubalcava, 36, of San Gabriel, who relies on Metro buses to get to work. In an interview, Rubalcava said he has noticed chemical-like smells on occasion after he boards early in the morning. He says he has never become ill.

Metro officials said ample precautions are taken when buses are treated to kill roaches and other insects attracted by crumbs from sandwiches, chips, candy and other food items that passengers often bring on board.

They say that safety information is provided to operators, and no more than eight driver complaints have been officially lodged in the last five years. In a recent letter, the authority told Cal/OSHA that employee exposures are insignificant because of the controlled conditions and limited amounts of pesticide applied.

"Spraying buses is common to prevent insect infestations," said Dave Sotero, a Metro spokesman. "These are standard industry practices, and the chemicals are used for a multitude of purposes."

The pesticides in question are pyrethrins made of a natural substance from chrysanthemums or their synthetic equivalent known as pyrethroids.

Thought to be safer than other pesticides, their use has exploded during the last two decades. Both are applied to kill insects in homes, on pets and on commercial farms. But studies of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data show that the number of human health problems — including severe reactions — have increased several hundredfold since their introduction.

Although spraying pesticides is common at transit agencies, officials at the Orange County Transportation Authority and Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus said their operations apply a pesticide gel specifically in cracks, crevices and panel areas of their buses. Sprays are rarely, if ever, used, they said. Of the two transit operators, Orange County reported only one complaint from a driver in the last few years.

Metro contracts with ISOTECH, an experienced and license pest control company. Sections of bus interiors are sprayed, including the driver's area, and, as with OCTA and Santa Monica, pesticides are injected into cracks, crevices, moldings and panel areas.

Buses are then posted with warnings and sealed off for four hours before employees can enter, officials said. Each vehicle is treated quarterly, but severe infestations can require additional applications.

"Our first concern is safety for the public and our employees," said Debra Johnson, the deputy chief operations officer for Metro. "We use pesticides for infestations, and we go to extremes to make sure we have a safe environment."

Drivers say, however, that pesticide odors can linger during their eight-hour shifts, producing flu-like symptoms. On several occasions, Portillo said, he became so sick he had to request a replacement in the middle of his shift. He and other operators disputed Metro's statement that safety information is readily available, noting that warning notices have been removed from treated buses before operators arrived for work.

"The MTA is not responding to their concerns," said attorney Diana Sparagna, who represents the drivers pursuing workers' compensation claims. "We have done everything right, but the MTA makes it sound like this is nothing."