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Illnesses Linked to Pesticide Use

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WebMD Health News

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 people.

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 conducted then.

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.

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