The number of people thought to be sickened by pesticides in California more than doubled from 2001 to 2002, an increase attributed to better reporting and two major incidents of pesticide drift in the Central Valley, according to a new report.
The state Department of Pesticide Regulation announced Thursday that it had found pesticides to be a possible or definite factor in 1,316 cases of reported illness in 2002 compared with 616 cases the previous year.
Department spokesman Glenn Brank said the rise was due in part to improved reporting through a partnership with the California Poison Control System, a statewide initiative that promotes poisoning education, prevention and treatment.
Brank said the 2002 number also was boosted by two Kern County incidents in which 373 people suffered suspected or confirmed pesticide-related illnesses stemming from the application of the soil fumigant metam-sodium. Pesticide drifting from those applications sickened farmworkers and neighbors.
Brank said the department's annual report was meant to provide the best information available about pesticide exposures.
"We have never pretended that this is a complete picture of pesticide illnesses, because we don't know how many cases go unreported," Brank said. "The key thing is to use the data to guide our overall programs ... to prevent future illnesses."
About 60% of reported pesticide illnesses involved job-related exposures and more than half of those involved the use of agricultural pesticides. The department investigated five deaths in 2002 and found three definitely related to pesticide exposure.
Kern County had the most reports of pesticide illness with 443. Los Angeles County had the most in Southern California with 106, followed by Orange County with 37, San Bernardino County with 34, Riverside County with 23 and Ventura County with 15.
The state report comes at a time when environmentalists and farmworker advocates have stepped up efforts to curb pesticide use statewide, including a recent push in Ventura County to reduce reliance on agricultural chemicals.
Eric Cardenas, head of a Central Coast program aimed at reducing pesticide-related health risks, said he was pleased that the report reflected the state's effort to better track pesticide illnesses. But he noted that the partnership between the state and the California Poison Control System ended in late 2002 for lack of funding and worried about cases that might now go unreported.
"I think the data show that [the state pesticide department] has previously been unable to adequately identify pesticide illnesses and that may still be the case," Cardenas said.