Safer Alternatives to Pesticides Explored

A May 28 conference co-sponsored by the California Department of Public Health looked at sustainable farming and ecologically friendly pest control, along with health impacts of pesticide use.

Agricultural pesticides can sicken farm workers, affect exposed children's development, and linger on harvested foods. Speakers at "Safer Alternatives to Pest Control in Agriculture," an all-day conference held yesterday at the University of California, Davis campus, discussed public health impacts of pesticide use, options for safer alternatives, and worker hazards associated with alternatives.

The Occupational Health Branch of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) organized the conference, and CDPH co-sponsored it with the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at UC Davis and the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. Speakers included Rupali Das, MD, MPH, of CDPH's Occupational Health Branch; Kim Harley, Ph.D., of UC Berkeley's Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas; Martha Harnly, MPH, of CDPH's Environmental Health Investigations Branch; and Margaret Reeves, Ph.D., of Pesticide Action Network North America; Robert I. Krieger, Ph.D., a Cooperative Extension Toxicologist at UC Riverside; and Clifford P. Ohmart, Ph.D., of the Lodi Winegroup Commission.

A CDPH study identified 1,474 cases of acute occupational pesticide illness among workers in California from 1998 through 2006, with a fairly steady decline in cases throughout the period. The study's authors concluded this number probably undercounted actual illnesses, however. The most common reported health effects among the 1,474 workers were headache, eye pain/irritation, nausea, nose or throat irritation, and dizziness. Nearly one-third of the workers lost eight or more work hours because of their illness, the study found. Counties in California's Central Valley (Fresno, Kern, San Joaquin, and Tulare) and Monterey County reported the highest number of cases, more than 80 cases per county, in the study. Sixty-one percent of the workers became ill while performing routine farming work, such as weeding or handling crops -- not while applying pesticides.

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