DPR releases data on 1999 pesticide injuries

DPR identified a total of 1,201 suspected or confirmed reports of pesticide injury in 1999, compared to 998 cases the previous year. Other than 1998, the total number of illnesses reported in 1999 was the lowest since 1986. (DPR statistics are based on investigations of every potential pesticide injury identified by local and state authorities.)

Pesticide drift exposures were identified in 570 cases -- the most frequent factor in 1999 injury reports. And most of the total increase from 1998 to 1999 could be attributed to a single drift incident in the Tulare County town of Earlimart.

Data collected by the Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program has played a role in several DPR actions against drift, including:

* A record, $150,000 penalty for a November, 1999 drift incident involving a metam-sodium fumigation in a farm field near Earlimart neighborhoods. About 170 people were affected. DPR's legal settlement with the applicator included $75,000 for medical monitoring.

* New DPR policies to ensure thorough drift investigations and encourage drift prevention measures. Toward that goal, DPR and the county agricultural commissioners have held meetings with interested parties -- including applicators and environmental advocates -- to discuss better drift prevention regulations.

* A survey to evaluate sulfur drift complaints and determine application problems. In response to DPR and county agricultural commissioner concerns, sulfur manufacturers have issued use guidelines to promote safer applications. Commissioners also are focusing on sulfur drift prevention in their continuing education classes for applicators.

The 1999 illness data detailed agricultural-related reports (555 cases, or 46 percent) and non-agricultural reports (646 cases, 54 percent). Occupational exposures accounted for 804 (67 percent) of reports. Pesticides include not only insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, but also disinfectants, sanitizers, and other chemicals that kill pests. More than 1 million farm and commercial pesticide applications are made annually in California.

Agricultural field worker injuries declined to 134 in 1999, compared to 170 the previous year. DPR's Worker Health and Safety Branch helped investigate two incidents that involved worker reentry into fields treated with pesticides.

In a Fresno County incident, seven grape harvesters received medical treatment for skin irritation and flu-like symptoms after entering a vineyard. Investigation subsequently showed that a pesticide not registered for use on grapes had been applied at an extremely high rate. The Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner determined that the pesticide, cyhalothrin, was delivered to the field in error and workers had applied the chemical without consulting their supervisors. The applicator and pesticide dealer were fined $1,000 each, and workers were not allowed back into the vineyard for an extended period.

The second incident occurred in a Kern County cotton field, where a work crew reentered the site about five hours after it was treated with tribufos and sodium chlorate. Reentry should have been prohibited for 24 hours. Seven workers subsequently sought medical treatment and five have had ongoing health problems. The Kern County Agricultural Commissioner identified several violations and issued civil penalties of more than $5,000 against the applicator and grower.

In response to such incidents, DPR has initiated an in-depth review of field posting (warning sign) regulations, illnesses related to early reentry, and pesticide use related to posting. DPR has also met with industry and worker advocacy groups to discuss the effectiveness of current regulations. Later this year, DPR's Worker Health and Safety Branch plans to make recommendations to enhance safety rules.

Other details from the 1999 data included:

* Four fatalities linked to pesticide exposure. In Los Angeles County, a worker was killed in an explosion at a facility that ripened bananas with ethylene gas, which is classified as a pesticide. Two persons died from pesticide ingestion; one was considered a suicide (Los Angeles County) and the second could not be determined (Ventura County). The fourth victim died after entering a structure during fumigation (Los Angeles County).

* Children's injuries linked to carelessness. In separate incidents, two children were hospitalized after they came in contact with pesticides poured into soft drink containers. Two other children received serious injuries due to unattended pesticide containers. A total of 63 cases involved children aged ten or younger. DPR reminds the public to store pesticides in a safe place, and never transfer pesticides into food containers.

* Illness investigations increased. DPR and the county agricultural commissioners -- who act as primary illness investigators -- reported a 10 percent increase in the number of cases reviewed from 1998 to 1999. As part of an ongoing effort to improve illness reporting, DPR enlisted help from poison control centers to encourage doctors and others to report pesticide incidents. State law requires physicians to report any suspected pesticide illness.

California's Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program is generally acknowledged as the nation's best. Data generated from illness reports has made DPR's worker protection program a model for other states. The program does not track every pesticide-related incident, since unreported illnesses cannot be documented. However, the scope of DPR's efforts are designed to assure that no types of illnesses are overlooked.

The 1999 pesticide illness data summary may be found on DPR's Web site at http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/dprdocs/pisp/1999pisp.htm. A brochure describing the Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program may be found online at http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/dprdocs/pisp/brochure.pdf. Or contact DPR's Worker Health and Safety Branch at (916) 445-4222.

(Note: A numerical summary of 1999 pesticide illness data by county are available by linking to the online version of this release at http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/pressrls/presmenu.htm, or by calling 916/445-3974 to have a copy faxed to you.)

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