by Dan Wheat

AppleOrchard.CentralWA.USDA.ARSCredit: USDA ARS

WENATCHEE, Wash. — The state departments of health and agriculture are investigating increased reports of alleged pesticide-related illness in and around tree fruit orchards in Central Washington.

There have been 15 potential pesticide drift events resulting in reports of 60 people being ill in the past two months which is as many as the department normally sees in a year, according to the Department of Health.

The Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Management Division received more than 150 complaints of alleged violations of pesticide laws last year with about half involving allegations of drift, Agriculture said in a news release.

There have been 13 complaints so far this year with nine of two or more people potentially exposed, the Agriculture Department said, noting all are under investigation.

The Department of Health’s complaints came from the Agriculture Department, Labor & Industries and the Washington Poison Center, said Kelly Stowe, a Health Department spokeswoman.

Symptoms reported have included eye and respiratory irritation, skin irritation and rashes, headache, nausea and vomiting, a Health news release states. The reports of pesticide drift have been in Adams, Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin, Grant and Yakima counties.

Health officials have asked Agriculture, WSU Extension and the Washington Farm Bureau to help notify licensed pesticide applicators about the problem and remind them of applicable laws and regulations regarding application and drift.

“Protecting people from unnecessary exposure to these chemicals is a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously,” Kathy Lofy, state Health officer said in the news release.

Everyone applying pesticides should do so safely, but the reports haven’t been investigated yet so it’s unknown if there are any illnesses or violations, Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms & Forests in Olympia, told Capital Press.

She noted the state’s annual blood tests of pesticide applicators has shown depressions of cholinesterase in blood streams, needed for healthy nervous systems, but no illnesses.

Overexposure to pesticides caused nine orders for temporary work removal of pesticide applicators in the state in 2013, according to L&I. There’s never been a reported pesticide illness by anyone monitored by the program, said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee. Workplace removal usually occurs before there are any symptoms, Richard Fenske, director of the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center at the University of Washington in Seattle, has said.

Mayer said the tree fruit industry takes pesticide safety very seriously and is eager for results of the state investigations to know if any adjustments are needed in applicator practices.

“The industry has over 2 million acre spray applications a year, so this (the complaints) is a relatively small number,” Mayer said. “In the big picture applicators are doing an excellent job, but we want to strive for zero complaints.”

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