Pesticide Side Effects Blamed for Reports of Skin Rash, Breathing Problems

An outbreak of skin rashes and breathing problems in Washington state may be linked to the use of pesticides, state health officials warn.  

According to a May 12 news release from the Washington State Department of Health, about 60 people have reported suffering ill following 15 potential pesticide drift events.

State officials indicate that the number of illnesses over the past two months equal what the state usually sees in the course of an entire year.

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“We’re concerned with this spike in potential drift exposures and are calling our partner agencies to work with pesticide applicators on following state and federal rules to prevent drift,” Kathy Lofy, a state health officer, said in the press release. “Protecting people from unnecessary exposure to these chemicals is a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously.’

The state has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington State University Cooperative Extension and the Farm Bureau for help in educating pesticide users on preventing the drifts, which are illegal and can result in enforcement action.

The illnesses, which include eye irritation, breathing problems, skin rashes, headaches, nausea, and vomiting, are not linked to one particular pesticide. All have taken place in Eastern Washington, including Adams, Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, and Yakima counties.

The same area, particularly Yakima, Benton, and Franklin counties, are the scene of an ongoing investigation into a mysterious rash of unexplained birth defects.

The area has seen three times the number of children born with anencephaly in recent years than other parts of the country. Considered extremely rare, the three counties saw at least seven babies born with the birth malformation last year.

Investigators have failed to find a cause for the birth defects, which result in children being born without parts of their brains or skulls and are usually fatal.

The investigation is looking into pesticide exposure as one possible cause, but residents and local medical experts have complained that there has been very little ground work by federal investigators in the areas affected.

Concerns about the cluster of birth defects in Washington state were first raised by a health-care provider in August 2012, after an excessive number of anencephaly births. Also known as neural tube defects, these problems often arise during the first month of pregnancy, which is a time when many women do not even know they are pregnant.

Neural tube defects are characterized by a hole in the spinal cord or brain because the neural tube does not close completely. This can result in defects that include spina bifida, and brain malformations that may result in parts of the brain missing or protruding from the skull.

The Washington Department of Health is reminding doctors about the importance of folic acid supplements for women of child-bearing age. Good folic acid levels are considered critical in the prevention of neural tube defects.

No investigators have made any direct ties between the pesticide drifts and the birth defect rates.

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