BOISE, IDAHO - Before fleeing their home in the belief it was killing them, before the lawyers, the expert witnesses, the dead dog and the bankruptcy, Bill and Laurie Enger had just one question: Why is this happening?
Laurie Enger's numbed brain offered no help. Nor could anyone else explain why, in those spring days in 1994, her pounding skull forbade sleep or why her lungs pumped out fluids. Or why, when she walked down her hallway, she careened off the walls as if she were a drunk on a rolling ship.
The Engers later believed they had found their answer: They had been poisoned by Dursban, the most widely used insecticide in America.
The Engers say exposure to Dursban, sprayed in their home by Orkin Exterminating, ruined their lives and finances. Their lawsuit against Orkin was settled without definitely establishing a link between their health problems and the insecticide, but their story is an example of what regulators say are the dangers posed by Dursban.
The mounting problems with the bug killer have led the Environmental Protection Agency to target the insecticide for what could be dramatic restrictions.
The EPA changes - affecting Dursban's hundreds of uses, from termite control to flea collars - could come within a few weeks.
Orkin already has stopped using Dursban for residential jobs unless homeowners specifically request it.
In the Engers' case, an expert the couple hired concluded that Orkin misused Dursban in their home and that residues of the insecticide were 3,400 times higher than levels considered safe. But thousands of reports of poisonings in EPA files come from Dursban use well within the current rules. The agency's own scenarios of how Dursban is used in homes and yards conclude that the insecticide poses a serious risk, especially to children.
Orkin, which denied any wrongdoing in the Engers' case, last month paid $175,000 to settle the suit. Because the Engers were in bankruptcy, they did not get the money, which went to pay their creditors and legal fees.
In court papers, Orkin said the Engers, who had previous health problems, could not link their suffering to the company's actions.
The Engers' doctors have concluded that both are permanently disabled from toxic exposure but acknowledge they cannot connect the health problems to the Dursban sprayed by Orkin.
Dursban is a cousin of the deadly nerve gas developed by German scientists during World War II. Its active chemical is a nerve agent called chlorpyrifos. Dursban and similar insecticides, called organophosphates, kill by depleting the body of enzymes essential to normal operation of the nervous system.
Scores of lab tests over the years show Dursban can enter the body through the skin or the lungs. As with all organophosphates, Dursban at low levels of exposure causes dizziness and nausea. As exposures increase, victims can suffer lasting neurological problems. At higher levels, Dursban will kill.
What sets Dursban apart from similar bug killers is its potency and the wide array of products in which it's used. EPA records show Americans used 20.9 million pounds of Dursban last year. Its manufacturer, Dow AgroSciences, says 70 percent of Dursban is used to kill termites. But other Dursban products are used outdoors on lawns and shrubs, and indoors in offices, schools, hotels, hospitals and restaurants. Dursban also is used frequently in pet flea collars.
These opportunities for exposure have led to about 7,000 accidental poisonings every year involving Dursban and other chlorpyrifos-based products - more than any other insecticide of its type, EPA reports say.
The EPA is now considering ways to curb the insecticide use both on crops and for residential use. The agency concluded typical uses - including Dursban use on lawns, in cracks and crevices inside the home, and in pet collars - posed too great a health risk, especially for children.
New York's attorney general called for a ban on Dursban earlier this year after a Rotterdam, N.Y., woman miscarried twice and her husband and 3-year-old son experienced health problems that they allege stemmed from a 1996 Dursban spraying for termites in their home.
The Engers came to Idaho after 20 years in southern California. In Boise, they marketed portable painting systems to cover graffiti and dreamed of selling out to a national or regional paint company.
Meanwhile, they had an everyday but pesky problem in their house: ants. One of their two daughters mentioned that ants in their house looked like carpenter ants, wood eaters that are the termites of the Northwest.
To deal with the problem, Laurie plucked Orkin Exterminating's name from the Yellow Pages.
Orkin is one of the biggest and best-known names in the exterminating business. Owned by Atlanta-based Rollins Inc., the 99-year-old Orkin serves 1.7 million customers through more than 400 branches in North America. With Orkin as its primary business, Rollins reports annual revenues of $586 million.
The Orkin representative who called on the Engers was Steven J. Christensen.
Laurie Enger says that before Christensen started work, she told him she suffered from respiratory allergies. According to her account, Christensen told her not to worry, that his products were safe and were routinely sprayed in schools and nursing homes.
In a deposition two years later, Christensen said he handed Enger a list of the chemicals he might spray and suggested that she consult with her doctor before spraying. Enger denies that Christensen ever issued the warning.
On March 5, 1994, Christensen went to work to kill the carpenter ants in the Engers' ranch-style home. Laurie Enger was on a trip, but Bill Enger remembered feeling sick in the days that followed.
When he left for California on business a few days later, he said he felt flulike symptoms and could barely speak. The couple returned home to Boise on March 22, more than two weeks after Orkin had done its work.
In the days that followed, Laurie Enger remembers being robbed of sleep. Her head throbbed. Her throat knotted. She could barely breathe. She sat doubled over at night, a roll of paper towels in hand to catch the fluids she coughed up.
Doctors could not pinpoint a problem.
When she remembered the spraying, she called the Idaho Department of Agriculture, which regulates pest control companies. Agency officials concluded, based on Christensen's statements and the labels on the chemicals he used, that he had done nothing wrong.
Laurie Enger developed a stutter and says she couldn't think clearly. Bill Enger became more depressed and lethargic, spending more time at home. He dropped 60 pounds from his usual 220-pound frame.
They debated whether they would have to leave their home to survive.
They had already buried Paddles, their 11-year-old black Labrador mix. The family vet never pinpointed why Paddles became ill, but what the Engers learned convinced them the symptoms were consistent with damage from nerve agents.
In July 1996, the Engers finally moved out. A few months earlier, they had filed suit against Orkin and Christensen.
Records produced by Orkin for the Engers' suit show that disgruntled customers have taken the company to court 74 times nationwide since 1987. The company has won two-thirds of the cases.
In the Engers' case, Orkin and Christensen deny any wrongdoing. In court papers, the company says chemicals were used properly. Christensen said in pretrial depositions that he followed proper procedures when spraying the Enger home for carpenter ants.
Among other issues, Orkin attorneys focused on the Engers' medical history. Both had been treated for depression for years, and Laurie Enger reported symptoms two months before the spraying to her doctors that included labored breathing, throat constriction, poor memory and nervousness. But an expert brought in by the Engers said the trail leads back to the overwhelming presence of the nerve-agent pesticides persisting in the Engers' home.
The hired expert, Richard Lipsey, a former EPA toxicologist, testified that tests of the carpet in the Engers' home - already cleaned twice by the Engers - showed high levels of Dursban. Lipsey testified that Dursban levels of 5 to 25 micrograms per square foot would be considered safe. The results from the Engers' house: 85,000 micrograms of Dursban per square foot.
Lipsey said that rather than seeking out the ant nest, Christensen sprayed inside the house's walls, drilling holes from the outside and applying the bug killer through switch plate holes from the inside. Lipsey concluded the holes were not properly capped and that Dursban had been spilled in the house entryway and was tracked inside.
The Engers, saying they were too sick to work, filed for bankruptcy protection, lost their home in foreclosure, saw their cars repossessed and know that most of their personal belongings ended up at the dump. They moved in with their daughter Nancy and her husband and settled into a routine as their long-delayed trial approached.
The Engers were unprepared for the possibility that their bankruptcy would open the door for Orkin to conclude a settlement with their creditors, and thus keep their suit from going before a jury.
Laurie Enger spent years preparing for her day in court against Orkin. Now it will probably never come.
"It's like you can take an eraser to justice," she said.