Pesticide-related illnesses among farm workers often go unreported

A study conducted by the Washington State Department of Health shows pesticide-related illnesses among farm workers often go unreported. The results of the study, released today at the Pesticide Incident Reporting and Tracking (PIRT) meeting in Yakima, will be used to improve how pesticide illnesses are identified and reported.

"We want to do our best to prevent anyone working on a farm from getting sick because of pesticides," said Dr. Jim VanDerslice, Department of Health epidemiologist. "One of the best ways to do this is by studying how workers are exposed - the more cases we know about, the better we will understand why they are occurring."

Six groups of farm workers met with the Department of Health and told them that they had experienced pesticide-related illness from occupational exposure, but few sought medical treatment for mild or moderate symptoms. Many workers said they didn’t want to lose wages and some feared that they would lose their job. Others said that they wouldn’t be able to afford an appointment or medication, not knowing the Workers’ Compensation System would pay for their first doctor visit. Many said if they did visit the doctor, they felt their doctor would not believe their illness was due to pesticide exposure.

The Department of Health study compared clinic and hospital records from the Yakima area to Department of Health records. The comparison showed only 60 percent of pesticide-related illnesses were reported to the Department of Health. The study also received input from stakeholders, such as employer trade organizations, grower groups, and farm worker representatives about how to improve the quality and usefulness of pesticide illness data collected by the Department of Health.

The Department of Health will provide these findings to the PIRT Review Panel to get their input on ways to help ensure farm workers seek medical attention if they believe they’ve been exposed to pesticides, and to improve the quality and usefulness of pesticide incident data collected by state agencies. The panel consists of representatives of six state agencies, two universities and two members of the public. The panel collects and publishes data on pesticide-related illnesses in Washington and the data is used to identify ways to prevent exposures and illnesses. The panel will be asked to consider recommendations in this study including:

  • Working with health care providers to increase the reporting of pesticide-related illness.
  • Educating farm workers on the Workers’ Compensation System and the risks of pesticides.
  • Improving how quickly reports about pesticide illness are produced and creating summaries that answer questions for specific groups.
  • The Department of Health is taking input regarding this study and its findings for the next month. Please email Dorothy Tibbetts ([email protected]), Pesticides and Surveillance Section Manager, or call 1-888-586-9427.

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