Officials point to increased awareness of hazards, protection
By DAN WHEAT
For the first time in seven years of Washington state testing, no agricultural pesticide applicators were temporarily blocked from work in 2010 for overexposure to toxic pesticides.
None of the 257 workers tested in 2010 was removed from work, compared with seven out of 249 in 2009 and 18 out of 386 in 2007, according to the report dated Dec. 22. The annual report is part of a voluntary program administered by the state Department of Labor and Industries.
Increased awareness of pesticide hazards and protections may be a factor in the better results, according to the report by John Furman, manager of the department's cholinesterase-monitoring program.
Department of Labor and Industries began testing for depression of cholinesterase, a blood enzyme needed for healthy nervous systems, in 2004 after the state Supreme Court ruled the agency had to consider testing.
Overexposure to certain pesticides depresses the cholinesterase level in the blood and can lead to nerves being overstimulated to the point of exhaustion, blurred vision, diarrhea, tremors, seizures, loss of consciousness and death, according to Labor and Industries.
The testing is done for people who work with pesticides known as organophosphates and n-methyl-carbamates.
A 20 percent depression of cholinesterase triggers employer review of pesticide-handling practices. A 30 percent depression in red blood cell cholinesterase or a 40 percent decline in serum cholinesterase results in temporary worker removal.
Of the 257 workers tested in 2010, eight hit the 20 percent level, requiring employer review of pesticide-handling practices. The eight were tree fruit workers in seven different orchards in Region 5, which includes the western part of Adams County and Benton, Chelan, Columbia, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Kittitas, Okanogan, Walla Walla and Yakima counties.
A consistent concern of officials conducting evaluations is the limited quality of employer-provided handler training, the report said.
Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee, said a significant number of the seven removals in 2009 came from one employer. Zero removals this year may indicate issues with that employer have been adequately addressed, he said.
The 2010 testing occurred between Jan. 18 and Sept. 16. A total of 1,989 pesticide handlers submitted baseline cholinesterase blood draws and 257 received at least one subsequent test in 2010 compared with 2,056 and 249 in 2009.
Some handlers may be more sensitive to pesticides and may no longer be handling them, Mayer said. Training is better and analysis of program data is better, he said.
Mayer noted none of the applicators, at any level of cholinesterase depression, have reported pesticide illness symptoms in any years of the testing. That, he said, continues to show that overall growers and handlers are doing a good job in managing their use of organophosphates.