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Report: Overused pesticides injure Michigan workers and homeowners

Spraying pesticide

A golf course employee spilled insecticide on his wet shoes. He awoke in the middle of the night, vomiting with a headache and a numb right foot.

A worker with holes in his gloves sprayed an herbicide at a blueberry farm. He didn’t wash his hands before eating lunch, and developed a sore throat, stomach pain and vomiting.

A homeowner mixed pool chemicals incorrectly and they exploded in his face. The accident left him with first- and second-degree burns, a collapsed lung and other serious injuries. He spent 31 days in the hospital.

These are just a few of the cases outlined in a new Michigan Department of Community Health report on accidents involving pesticides. With spring cleaning season underway, the report is a timely reminder that the household disinfectants, swimming pool chemicals and other pesticides many people purchase this time of year can cause serious injury and even death.

Most of those accidents can be avoided by taking basic precautions. And in many cases, there is no need to use toxic chemicals in the first place.

In 2012, the most recent year covered in the report, there were 84 confirmed cases in Michigan of people being poisoned by pesticides while on the job, along with 440 non work-related incidents. (The report’s definition of pesticides includes insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, disinfectants and other chemicals.)

The pesticide poisonings included in the report are likely just the tip of the iceberg, its authors acknowledge.

That’s in part because doctors generally have little training in how to distinguish pesticide-related injuries from illnesses with similar symptoms. Only 3.6 percent of occupational incidents and 12.6 percent of all incidents captured in the report were reported by health professionals, with the vast majority instead coming from Michigan’s poison control center.

Another limitation is that incidents among migrant farm workers are probably vastly underreported. The laborers often live right beside fields where pesticides are sprayed and in some cases use pesticides in their daily work. Yet, migrant health clinics almost never report pesticide poisonings to the state.

The report also notes that many of the poisonings—particularly those caused by disinfectants—occurred because the chemicals were used when they were unnecessary.

“Disinfectants should be used sparingly in the home, since they can contribute to antimicrobial resistance and chlorine can contribute to asthma,” said report co-author Abby Schwartz of the DCH’s Division of Environmental Health.

For most uses, plain-old white vinegar is an effective and nontoxic cleaner. Similarly, there is no evidence that hand-washing with chemical-laden antimicrobial soaps is any more effective at preventing illness than using regular soap and hot water. The federal Food and Drug Administration recently ordered manufacturers to either demonstrate that the antimicrobial agents added to soap aren’t harmful or stop using them.

“Soaps and detergents dissolve dirt and germs so they can be washed away with some scrubbing and water,” Schwartz said. “They act by removing the germs instead of killing them and for healthy people that’s all that’s necessary.”

All told, Americans use more than a billion pounds of pesticides each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That includes products that are widely overused to grow “healthy lawns” – chemical-dependent monocultures where only grass can grow. As a recent op-ed in the New York Times explained,

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service says homeowners use up to 10 times more chemicals per acre than farmers do. Some of these chemicals rub off on children or pets, but most are washed with rainwater into our streams, lakes and rivers or are absorbed into our groundwater. These are the sources of our drinking water, and tests show these chemicals are indeed contaminating our water supply.

If you must use pesticides, some common-sense precautions can go a long way to protect your health. For instance, never mix pesticides and always use them as directed on the label. Store them out of reach of children and in their original container. Don’t spray them into the wind. Wear the recommended protective equipment.

Other precautions are less intuitive. For example:

  • Never use bleach together with acids or with materials that contain ammonia. When combined, bleach and ammonia form toxic gases called chloramines. Not to get too gross here, but remember: Urine contains ammonia. Do not use bleach to, for example, clean cat urine from carpet. And while vinegar is nontoxic, it is an acid and should not be mixed with bleach.
  • Always add acid to water, not water to acid. This mistake frequently leads to injuries when people are preparing chemicals to clean swimming pools. Pouring water onto chlorine granules or other acids can cause an explosion.
  • Store only identical chemicals above or below each other. Should a chemical on a higher shelf leak, proper storage will keep it from mixing with a different chemical below it.

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Photo courtesy Marc van der Chijs via Flickr.

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