Sudden spike in pesticide-related illnesses concerns Washington state health officials

The Washington State Department of Health said they have received reports of 15 potential pesticide drift events resulting in about 60 people getting ill in the past two months - that’s as many the agency normally sees in a year.

Since March, the department has received reports that people, primarily orchard workers, have reported getting sick due to exposure to pesticides after what is known as a “drift event.”

Drift events can happen when pesticide spray drifts away from its intended area because of wind or when the person spraying isn’t aware that people are in the area.

The Department of Health has asked the Department of Agriculture, WSU Cooperative Extension and the Farm Bureau for help in notifying licensed pesticide applicators about the problem. Applicators that violate the law can face a range of actions based on the circumstances that are enforced by the departments of Agriculture and Labor and Industries.

“We’re concerned with this spike in potential drift exposures and are calling our partner agencies to work with pesticide applicators on following state and federal rules to prevent drift,” said Kathy Lofy, state health officer.

“Protecting people from unnecessary exposure to these chemicals is a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously.”

Most agricultural pesticide labels prohibit application that will contact workers or other people either directly or through drift. All of the recent instances of pesticide drift have occurred in Eastern Washington: Adams, Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin, Grant and Yakima counties - the region of the state where there are many orchards.

Pesticide investigators from the Department of Health examine each potential case of pesticide illness to identify common risk factors and confirm the specific pesticide involved. Determining the exact pesticide a person was exposed to can assist a health care provider in determining the correct course of medical treatments to resolve the symptoms being experienced.

The cases reported in the last month have mostly involved sprays that are typically applied before orchard trees have developed their leaves for the year.

The type of illness or injury a person may have after a pesticide exposure varies based on type of chemicals being used, the amount and way in which a person is exposed and a person’s health.

Symptoms reported have included eye and respiratory irritation, skin irritation and rashes, headache, nausea, and vomiting.

To ensure that pesticides do not drift beyond the intended treatment area, pesticide applicators must:

...Read the label on the pesticides being applied and abide by all precautions and restrictions on safe handling, necessary protective equipment, buffers, the effect on crops and more.

...Be especially diligent near sensitive areas such as highways, homes, schools and other occupied dwellings or where workers are present.

...Properly calibrate equipment, using the proper nozzles and pressure to keep the spray on-target.

...Scout the areas bordering the area being treated.

...Evaluate conditions such as wind speed, wind direction and temperature.

...Halt the application if conditions change such that the risk of drift rises to an unsafe level or if anyone approaches the area without proper protection.

To file a complaint, email compliance@agr.wa.gov or call toll free to 1-877-301-4555. Be sure to have as much information as possible regarding the incident to share with the investigator.

Washington State Department of Agriculture strives to respond to all cases of possible human exposure within 24 hours and all other complaints within 48 hours.

More information about pesticides and health is online on the Washington State Department of Health website (doh.wa.gov). Information on how to report pesticide misuse as well as on pesticide-use enforcement is online at the Washington State Department of Agriculture (agr.wa.gov).

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