Illnesses Linked to Pesticide Use
Nov. 11, 1999 (Washington) -- People living in Florida usually coexist with
more than their share of bugs, notably mosquitoes and roaches. But when
Mediterranean fruit flies were thought to be threatening the citrus crop in
part of the state in spring 1998, Florida officials took action, dispatching
helicopters and airplanes to spray five counties that were also home to 132,000
After spraying -- which was opposed by some farmers and citizens -- the
state collected 230 reports of illnesses possibly related to the spraying, and
federal health officials now say about half of those are linked to pesticide
exposure. A report describing the illnesses in this week's Morbidity and
Mortality WeeklyReport recommends that in the future, spraying be
done at night and that other alternatives to spraying be actively pursued
"It's a small risk, but nonetheless, it is an identifiable risk,"
Geoffrey Calvert, MD, PhD, a study author and a senior health officer with the
National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, under the CDC, tells
WebMD. "I think additional efforts are needed to identify alternative
methods, and the article recommends measures that will reduce the risk.
[Florida officials] are working on adopting the recommendations."
Medflies die by consuming bait mixed with malathion, a combination that was
applied on the ground in one county and sprayed in droplet form in all five.
The state had also sprayed the year before, but no illness surveillance was
The report stops short of calling for a halt to the practice of spraying
with malathion for medflies or mosquitoes. It recommends that when it sprayed
for either use, people should be told to stay indoors and to seek medical help
if necessary. For malathion/bait spraying, the report recommends that the
public be notified in advance of spraying; that it be done at night or other
times when people are usually indoors; that any skin be immediately washed if
it comes in contact with malathion/bait contaminated surfaces; and that workers
be trained in safe use of the pesticide and wear protective clothing.
Calvert also tells WebMD, "I think it would be important to do
surveillance wherever malathion is sprayed." However, much will have to
change before that occurs. Only eight states currently have government-run
pesticide surveillance programs of any type today, although up to 30 states
require the reporting of suspected pesticide-related illnesses.
Of the 230 reported cases of problems, 107 were discounted due to a lack of
information or because the symptoms being reported were incompatible with
pesticide exposure. Without specific laboratory or environmental tests, the CDC
does not classify any cases as a "definite" result of exposure, and no
reports met this requirement. The balance, 123 cases, were thought to be either
"possibly" or "probably" related to the malathion. These people
experienced multiple problems, from nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting to problems
with breathing, burning eyes, blurred vision, and skin rashes.