Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

State sees rise in pesticide-related injuries, illnesses

By HALEY WALKER
Capital News Service

LANSING — In 2008, a Michigan postal worker with breathing trouble went to a hospital emergency room after a custodian sprayed ants with an insecticide near her feet. She lost three weeks of work.

That same year, a department store employee was stocking shelves when an insect fogger was knocked over and activated. She, too, was sent to the emergency room complaining of shortness of breath.

Such events aren’t unique.

The Department of Community Health (DCH) logged more than 120 similar, pesticide-related workplace injuries in 2008. That was the most reported in the six years since DCH started publishing a tally.

“It is more of a disappointment than a surprise,” said Michigan State University medicine Professor Kenneth Rosenman, one of the study’s contributors.

The study of workers hurt by on-the-job pesticide analyzes cases reported to Michigan Poison Control Centers, Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance and the Department of Agriculture.

“Pesticides, when compared to lots of other chemicals, are some of the most regulated chemicals we use in our society,” Rosenman said. “But there is more exposure to them, and more exposure to potentially dangerous substances means more adverse health effects.”

Pesticides are chemicals used to kill or control insects, weeds, fungi, rodents and germs. There are more than 600 such chemicals found in 16,000 products in the United States.

Abby Schwartz, the report’s author and a DCH public health consultant, said most people don’t think of cleaners such as bleach or insect sprays used in the home or workplace as pesticides.

But 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. every year, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“A pesticide is defined as anything that inhibits, can kill or controls something that is unwanted,” Schwartz said. “These chemicals are designed to kill, and so even though you might be able to buy it off the shelf, they should be treated with respect, carefully, and only when needed as opposed to routinely.”

The annual number of cases fluctuates but the state has confirmed 615 from 2001 through 2008, the most recent year with full figures.

Rosenman said an increased use of disinfectants is the reason for the growing number of illnesses and injuries. Germ- and bacteria-killing substances were the largest problems in 2008 and accounted for 68 percent of the cases.

Among them were a day care worker diagnosed with first-degree burns on her hands after using a disinfectant and a systems analyst who became dizzy and nauseous after using her phone, which had been cleaned with Clorox Wipes.

More than 5,000 such antimicrobials are sold in the U.S., according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“There is increased commercial marketing and people are concerned about various infectious diseases,” Rosenman said. “People need to think of disinfectant as the hazards they are and not use them when they are not needed.”

Inhalation was the most common means of pesticide contact, according to the report. Skin and eye exposures and ingestion were other common routes of exposure.

Insecticides, often involving spraying, were the second-largest source of harm from pesticides.

For example, a teenage restaurant employee developed a cough, chest pain and nausea after spraying a bathroom wall with an insecticide to treat fruit flies. A hair salon employee, injured after a coworker sprayed her chair with an insecticide for lice, touched the chair and her face and developed a blister on her lip.

Schwartz said a better understanding of the risks of such chemicals would have been helpful because the coworker would have been more likely to inform her that she’d sprayed the chair.

The DCH report said the occupations of the injured workers varied, but the largest number were in food services. Other industries mentioned include engineering, nursing, hospitality, construction, teaching, retail, trucking and agriculture.

Schwartz said that farming, which is traditionally associated with pesticide use, usually accounts for a relatively low number of cases in Michigan, but the EPA

estimates that between 10,000 and 20,000 annual pesticide poisonings occur nationally among 2 million U.S. agricultural workers.

“We generally don’t have a lot of agricultural cases reported, but that is due to them not being reported,” Schwartz said. “There are a lot of reasons, some cultural, some access.”

She said the report’s count of agricultural-related cases is especially low in light of the fact that Michigan had more than 55,000 farms and 10 million acres of farmland in 2008.

“Michigan does have a very large agricultural industry so I would expect more reports than we get,” Schwartz said. “The exposed person might not report it, and the provider might not ask about it.”

Schwartz has initiated education and outreach projects with farm and migrant health clinics to increase worker and clinic reporting of pesticide-related illnesses.

Susan Smolinske, director of the Poison Center at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, said, “There is always a fear among workers that if you tell your boss you have had an exposure, you might be at risk for losing your job or transferring to a less paying job.

Smolinske, who also contributed to the DCH report, said better education of employees and employers would prevent many illnesses and injuries.

“A lot of times there is a very minor change to make,” she said. “This says we are not doing as much as we can as a society in protecting the workforce.”

Haley Walker writes for Great Lakes Echo.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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