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February 17, 2004 - Sonoma County pesticide illnesses decline in 2002

Sonoma County illnesses linked to pesticide exposure declined in 2002, even as the total number of pesticide poisoning cases nearly doubled in California.

A state report released Thursday shows exposure to pesticides was linked to 20 illnesses in Sonoma County in 2002, down from 21 cases the previous year, with most of the cases occurring off the farm.

Illnesses were down in Napa and Mendocino counties, but up slightly in Lake County. The report shows only one pesticide illness case in Mendocino County, three in Lake County and five in Napa County in 2002.

The pesticide illness report was released by the Department of Pesticide Regulation, an agency of the California Environmental Protection Agency. The reported illnesses in 2002, the most recent year analyzed, include those confirmed to be caused by pesticides or potentially caused by pesticides.

But anti-pesticide groups said the illnesses reported by the Department of Pesticide Regulation are only a fraction of the actual pesticide poisoning cases.

"It's just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of people are being poisoned by pesticide drift and exposure, and it's not reported," said Margaret Reeves, staff scientist with the Pesticide Action Network, an anti-pesticide organization based in San Francisco.

Pesticides in the state's definition include the toxic chemicals used to control pests in farm crops and gardens, household cleaning agents, sanitizing agents in hospitals or food processing plants, fumigants for termites and many other chemicals used in modern life.

The report found that of the 20 pesticide illnesses in Sonoma County, nine of the cases were linked to agricultural pesticides. Those cases involved illnesses caused by the drift of methyl bromide and other pesticides and skin rashes or eye irritations caused by sulfur, an organic element that is the most widely used pesticide in Sonoma County.

Over the past four years, there has been a downward trend in agricultural pesticide illnesses in Sonoma County, reflecting the movement toward more sustainable farming practices and better safety training for agricultural workers.

"The reduced numbers are encouraging and can be attributed to the ever-increasing knowledge by growers and the high priority placed on pesticide safety training," said Agricultural Commissioner John Westoby, who oversees the use and application of all pesticides in Sonoma County.

But statewide there was an alarming jump in the number of reported pesticide illnesses investigated by the Department of Pesticide Regulation. In 2002, the agency investigated 1,859 reported pesticide illnesses, a 90 percent increase from 979 cases in 2001. The agency said pesticides were found to be at least a possible factor in 1,316 cases in 2002, compared with 616 cases the previous year.

Glenn Brank, spokesman for the Department of Pesticide Regulation, said a change in reporting standards between 2001 and 2002 is the primary reason for the dramatic increase in illness cases. He said because of a contract with the California Poison Control System in 2002, the Department of Pesticide Regulation identified and investigated more suspected pesticide illnesses.

Brank said illness numbers in 2002 also were pushed higher by two major incidents of chemical drift from agricultural field applications of the fumigant metam-sodium in Kern County. There were 373 people sickened in the two pesticide drift cases.

Even with the increased reporting through the Poison Control System in 2002, pesticide illnesses still are severely underreported, said Reeves of the Pesticide Action Network.

She said underreporting occurs because farmworkers are afraid to report an illness for fear of losing their job, or doctors fail to diagnose pesticide illnesses in sick patients.

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