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Study: Pesticide-Linked Illness Up in Schools

Very Few Kids Affected; Most Cases Not Severe, Study Shows
WebMD Health News

July 26, 2005 -- Illness due to pesticides has risen among U.S. school kids and school workers, but the risk is still low.

A new study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, tracks pesticide-related illnesses from 1998 to 2002.

During that time, illness related to pesticide exposure at school was reported in about seven out of a million children and 27 per million full-time school workers.

These findings indicate that pesticide exposures at schools continue to produce acute illnesses among school employees and students in the U.S., write the researchers. However, they add that such illnesses are still relatively rare and usually not severe.

Researchers included Walter Alarcon, MD, of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Lack of Pesticide Regulations

Pesticides must be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but there are currently "no specific federal regulations on limiting pesticide exposures at schools," write the researchers.

Their findings come from reports to databases from NIOSH, California's pesticide regulation department, and the Toxic Exposure Surveillance System.

Illnesses were counted if state experts or poison control centers decided the symptoms matched the pesticide's known toxic effects.

Most Cases Were Mild

Over the five-year period 2,593 people fell ill after being exposed to pesticides at schools, write the researchers.

None of the cases were fatal. Most were of low severity. That often means skin, eye, or upper respiratory tract irritation, with no treatment needed.

About 275 cases were of moderate severity. Those cases aren't life-threatening or disabling, but they require treatment.

Only three cases were severe. Such illnesses may be life-threatening and often require hospitalization to save the patient's life.

Biggest Source: Insecticides

The types of pesticides were noted:

  • Insecticides: 35% of reported illnesses
  • Disinfectants: 32%
  • Repellents: 13%
  • Herbicides: 11%

Among those exposed to pesticides, nearly seven out of 10 cases were linked to pesticides used at schools. Others were tied to pesticides that drifted over to schools from nearby farms, write the researchers.

Researchers' Recommendations

Alarcon and colleagues didn't just list the numbers. They also offered their advice, including:

  • Use the least toxic pesticide needed.
  • Identify and try to eliminate the problem's source.
  • Apply pesticides when students and staff aren't at school.
  • Only let trained staff apply pesticides.
  • Farms should follow labels and guidelines to avoid pesticide drift.
  • Establish and enforce nonspray buffer zones around schools.

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