WHITTIER — Workers who sprayed undiluted pesticides at a spider-infested school last week may have suffered high-level toxic poisoning but will probably have no long-term health effects, according to a county health official.
The official said it is also unlikely that any students at East Whittier Middle School suffered health problems as a result of their exposure to pesticides that were improperly applied.
Twenty-one people, including 15 students, became ill at the school Monday, and school administrators closed the campus the rest of the week.
Blood Tests Arranged
Paul Papanek, chief of the Los Angeles County Health Department's toxic epidemiological program, said late last week that he had arranged for blood tests for six of the 12 East Whittier City School District employees who participated in the Oct. 4 fumigation or the cleanup which followed. At a meeting Wednesday, the workers told Papanek they had experienced nausea, headaches and dizziness, symptoms sometimes associated with pesticide overexposure.
The chemicals used at the school contained the pesticide Dursban and DDVP. Both are considered toxic to humans, but it was the relatively high Dursban residue which caused the Health Department to order the school cleaned by a professional toxic waste disposal company.
Papanek said none of the employees had "textbook cases" of pesticide poisoning, which would also include blurred vision and diarrhea. "You really need to see the whole complex (of symptoms) to know for sure," he said. Nevertheless, Papanek said, poisoning was "conceivable in a few of the individual applicators in particular."
School district officials said that two workers fumigated the school and a supervisor was present part of the time. Ten other district employees worked all night Monday and part of Tuesday scrubbing classrooms in an attempt to remove the strong-smelling chemicals. Preliminary investigations by the county's Health Department and Agricultural Commission indicate that none of the 12 workers wore adequate protective clothing, spokesmen for both agencies said.
An antidote exists for both Dursban and DDVP, but it must be administered within a day of exposure, Papanek said. Therefore, even if the tests show pesticide overexposure, the only treatment would be to avoid the substances for a month while the effects wear off, and to ease the symptoms, Papanek said.
However, even if the workers were poisoned, the prognosis is good. "We suspect that there are probably no long-term health effects," Papanek said. "We don't anticipate any."
Papanek said the effect of Dursban on humans is not well-documented. "We'll be watching this episode to see what we can learn."
Any adverse reaction would have been immediate, he said. "If they haven't had symptoms by now, they won't," he said.
Papanek also met with school staff members and teachers last week and told them it is unlikely that they or their students were poisoned, based on the level of residue found in tests. Those who were experiencing headaches, rashes or respiratory irritation were urged to consult physicians.
Meanwhile, an official from the county Agricultural Commission said preliminary reports indicated that the spraying violated both state and federal law. "It's a little bit premature, but the indication is that some violations occurred," said Cato Fiksdal, supervising inspector of the Agricultural Commission's pesticide use enforcement division.
Label instructions, which must be followed under state and federal law, specify that Dichloron and Dichloron LO (low odor), brand names of two pesticides used, must be diluted before they are applied. The Dichloron was not diluted, Fiksdal said.
The Dichloron label also states that users must wear organic vapor respirators that have been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and by the Mining Enforcement Administration, Fiksdal said.
School district workers wore only paper dust masks, Fiksdal said.
Fiksdal said earlier that the pesticides may have been applied in inappropriate places at the school. But on Thursday he said that further investigation has shown that the locations were proper.
Cleanup by a professional toxic disposal company began early Wednesday, with 10 to 12 people working around the clock. Each classroom was taking 2 1/2 to 3 hours to clean, said Jose Ochoa, senior industrial hygienist for the County Health Department.
"They are doing a very good and very thorough job," said Ochoa, who ordered the extensive cleanup. If the areas are not clean after further toxicity tests are conducted, "they'll have to go back and do it again."
Cleanup, which is being supervised by the Health Department, will cost the district up to $46,000.