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Washington State Budget Cuts Target Pesticide Poisoning Surveillance Program

(Beyond Pesticides, January 8, 2009) Washington State’s model health protection programs are expected to be hit hard by Governor Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget cuts despite the minimal costs of running these essential programs, according to local activists in the state. The governor’s proposed budget will decimate the Washington Department of Health (DOH) Pesticide Program, including the Pesticide Incident Reporting and Tracking (PIRT) program, and the state’s Poison Control Center. Farm workers, children and the uninsured will likely be most affected. The proposed budget imposes almost no cuts to entities supported by the agrochemical industry.

According to Carol Dansereau, an attorney with the Farm Worker Pesticide Project, and Liesl Zappler, PIRT Panel’s public member, the proposed cuts will eliminate half of the DOH’s Pesticide Program staff. DOH staff-time goes to pesticide incident interviews, toxicology research, sampling, gathering medical and spray records, analyzing and reviewing data, transmitting data, and writing reports including the PIRT report. DOH also works with growers and applicators to prevent accidental poisonings. The proposed DOH budget cuts also explicitly eliminate the PIRT Panel and its reporting requirements even though the PIRT Panel activities costs’ are minimal. Last year, DOH contributed $13,000 to PIRT; and with cuts instituted this year, the total cost is approximately $7,600 for a part-time coordinator. PIRT was created by the Washington State Legislature to address issues of health and environmental impacts from pesticide use and misuse.

PIRT has been under assault from pro-pesticide groups. In addition, controversy has surrounded the Panel’s toxicologist position. Last year, Governor Gregoire appointed Charles Timchalk, Ph.D., a scientist who works with Dow Chemical Company, to the Panel’s toxicologist position instead of reappointing Steven Gilbert, Ph.D., director and founder of the non-profit Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders. (Dr. Gilbert was instrumental in persuading PIRT to endorse pesticide drift monitoring.) After the news media reported on the new appointee’s financial conflicts of interest, he resigned before what would have been his first meeting. For over seven months, Governor Gregoire has left the toxicologist position on the Panel unfilled, despite available candidates without financial conflicts of interest.

“The elimination of PIRT,” states Ms. Dansereau, “is a political move falsely presented as a fiscal measure.”

The proposed budget cuts will also reduce funding for the Washington Poison Center by 50 percent to $1million although it is critical in referring pesticide poisoning cases to DOH. Poison Control Centers produce significant savings to the community by preventing expensive care at emergency rooms, and reducing the length of hospital stays.

“Washington State has one of the best pesticide poisoning surveillance programs in the country, it matches and may even exceed is some aspects California’s excellent program,” states Geoffrey M. Calvert, MD, MPH, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s unfortunate it’s under attack.”

Data compiled from these Washington State programs are vital in establishing a statewide and national perspective on pesticides’ impact on public health and the environment. For instance, a recent multi-state assessment study of acute pesticide poisonings among agricultural workers by Dr. Calvert used data pooled from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) and NIOSH’s Sentinel Event Notification System for Occupational Risks-Pesticides (SENSOR-Pesticides) program, which collects information from ten state health departments, including Washington State’s. The study finds the pesticide poisoning incidence rate among U.S. agricultural workers to be thirty-nine times higher than the incidence rate found in all other industries combined. A 2005 study finding that that students and school employees are poisoned by pesticide use at schools and from drift off of neighboring farmlands also used surveillance data from Washington States’ DOH PIRT program as part of the SENSOR data, CDPR and Toxic Exposure Surveillance System (TESS).

TAKE ACTION: Contact Governor Chris Gregoire and share your views on the importance of such health programs and its national impact. For Washington State residents, also contact your state legislators and Representative Frank Chopp, Speaker of the House, asking them to restore adequate funding to DOH, PIRT and the Washington Poison Center so they can continue to protect the health and safety of Washington’s citizens.


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