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Reported California Pesticide Poisoning Cases Increased in 2002
(Beyond Pesticides, March 3, 2004)
The number of reported pesticide poisonings in California doubled in 2002 from 2001, according to the California Department of Pesticide Regulations (DPR) summary of pesticide illness information released on February 26th. DPR investigated 1,859 potential cases of pesticide illness in 2002, compared to 979 cases in 2001. Pesticides were found to be at least a possible factor in 1,316 cases in 2002, compared to 616 cases the previous year.

DPR states that there are two factors that account for the increase. First, DPR identified more suspected illnesses through a contract with the California Poison Control System. Second, DPR received a significant number of cases (373 suspected or confirmed illnesses) based on just two incidents. Both involved drift from agricultural field applications of the fumigant metam-sodium.

DPR's work with the California Poison Control System (CPCS) to improve illness reporting produced significant results in 2002. The collaborative effort prompted more than 500 investigations. Some 317 were deemed at least possibly related to pesticide exposure. About two-thirds of these cases were non-occupational.

According to DPR, CPCS provided information on incidents that might not have been reported to DPR otherwise. One such case in 2002 involved an asthmatic woman in Los Angeles County who set off an insect fogger in a closed room, then returned to rescue her cat. The woman suffered immediate respiratory symptoms but did not seek medical treatment until the following day; the cat was unharmed. In Yolo County, a woman cleaning her bathroom mixed household chemicals and suffered respiratory problems. And in Imperial County, a child who found an insect repellent spray can in a dumpster sprayed the pesticide into the eyes of a playmate. The victim's grandmother immediately flushed the child's eyes with water and sought medical aid.

On average, DPR learned of a suspected illness from CPCS within five days after it occurred. DPR investigators have found that prompt notification is often a crucial factor in successful investigations, and CPCS data proved to be an important source of information on non-agricultural and non-occupational illnesses. The collaboration between DPR and CPCS began in 2001 and ended in November 2002, when a $100,000 grant from U.S. EPA ran out. DPR plans to resume working with CPCS if funding becomes available.

DPR's Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program, run by the Worker Health and Safety Branch, does not produce a "census" of pesticide injuries, since there is no way to document illnesses that go unreported. The illness surveillance program focuses on assuring that no type of illness is overlooked, and DPR scientists analyze illness data to determine trends and identify potential problem areas. Worker Health and Safety Branch studies have shown that pesticide-related injuries at work, or cases related to agricultural activities, are more likely to be reported than pesticide illnesses at home. Pesticide illness studies, supported by hospital records, also show that DPR's program is effective at detecting any incident involving multiple victims.

Although physicians are required by law to report any suspected pesticide illness, compliance is low. DPR has developed other sources of illness data, and County Agricultural Commissioners investigate every report they receive from physicians, DPR or other sources. DPR's Worker Health and Safety Branch then reviews county investigations and determines whether cases are pesticide-related.

The largest drift incident in 2002 involved a field fumigation near the Kern County community of Arvin in July. Applicators injected metam-sodium into the soil as irrigators ran clean water through sprinklers to minimize off-gassing. However, the application tractors moved faster than irrigators could supply water. That night, a shift in wind blew gasses into the adjacent neighborhood and a carrot processing plant. Residents called emergency crews, and one woman was hospitalized with serious respiratory problems. Illness reports were collected from 72 workers at the carrot processing plant and 178 residents and visitors in the residential area.Last December, DPR reached a settlement in which the applicator, Western Farm Service, paid a $60,000 civil penalty with no admission of wrongdoing.

The second largest drift incident in 2002 occurred in Kern County in June, when 138 vineyard workers arrived on the job just as a metam-sodium application was ending in an adjacent field. While only one worker sought medical care, DPR determined that 123 of the workers developed exposure symptoms such as eye and respiratory irritation, and headaches. Enforcement action is pending in that case.

Other data from the 2002 illness summary:

  • About 60 percent of the reported illnesses involved occupational exposures. Slightly more than half of them (53 percent) involved use of pesticides for agricultural purposes.
  • Of the 1,316 suspected cases, a definite connection to pesticide exposure was established in 105 cases. Another 920 were classified as probable, and 290 as possible.
  • 35 pesticide-associated illnesses and injuries were reported in California schools.
  • Some 240 cases involved field workers. Fumigations were implicated in 160 of these (including the 123 in the Kern County vineyard incident described above). Some 78 worker illnesses involved exposure to residues, and early reentry was a frequent factor.
  • DPR investigated five deaths in 2002, and found three definitely related to pesticide exposure. An 88-year-old Alzheimer's disease patient in San Bernardino County mistook a sanitizer for apple juice. An 88-year-old farmer in Stanislaus County using bleach bottles to store an organophosphate pesticide and water drank from the wrong bottle and sought medical aid, but died in the hospital. In the third fatality, a man broke into his San Diego County home during a fumigation.
  • Incidents totaled 656 in 2002, compared to 539 the previous year. (An incident involves one or more suspected cases. The number of incidents has generally declined in the past decade; during the early 1990s, the total number of incidents exceeded 1,000 annually.)

Nine states (including California, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Texas and Washington) currently have laws that require the collection of pesticide illness data.

TAKE ACTION: Contact your state legislators and members of Congress about the need for pesticide monitoring legislation. Pesticide-induced illness is a serious public health issue given the widespread use of these chemicals. In general, policy makers are unable to adequately evaluate the health impact of pesticide exposure because poisonings are not a reportable medical or health event.

The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) provided testimony before the Maryland legislature on March 13, 2001, which supports the need for pesticide illness reporting and education legislation in every state. John Stephenson, Director of the Natural Resources and Environment team of GAO and Jay Feldman, Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides, testified in support of Maryland's proposed pesticide illness reporting and education legislation, Senate Bill 654.

Meanwhile, the federal government has not been collecting this kind of information and is not expected to take on this function. EPA did have a Pesticide Incident Monitoring System for over a decade, from 1978 until 1981. Since that time, the federal government has been relying on states to conduct these programs to protect their residents and, in some cases, to assist in regulatory deliberations on pesticide safety. In a 1995 report, Pesticides: EPA's Efforts to Collect and Take Action on ExposureIncident Data, GAO said, "According to EPA staff, data on incidents of exposure played a significant part in 19 instances in which the agency took measures to protect the public health between 1989 and 1994." In a 2000 report, Pesticides: Improvements Needed to Ensure the Safety of Farmworkers and Their Children, GAO clearly spells out the deficiencies in the federal data collection system and concludes, "Officials from these agencies that collect data on pesticide illnesses confirmed that a lack of comprehensive national data exists . . . for the general population…" The report then explains the deficiencies associated with the range of databases that EPA uses to indicate the extent of acute pesticide incidents and illnesses. It cites four databases, including the American Association of Poison Control Centers, Section 6(a)(2) of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network, and the California Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program.

Contact Beyond Pesticides for more information, including finding out what to do in a pesticide emergency and how to file reports to the organization's Pesticide Incident Reporting system.