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Test Detects Pesticide Poisoning in Farmers with Flu Symptoms

January 30, 1987

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) _ Farmers with flu-like symptoms actually may be suffering from pesticide contamination, but a widely available blood test can help pinpoint the problem, experts say.

″Sometimes a farmer says, ‘Gee, I had the flu all summer,’ when in fact he had been poisoned,″ said Mike Hardt of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau. ″This test detects it quickly so the farmers can get prompt diagnosis and treatment.″

The test, however, is no substitute for wearing gloves, masks and other protective gear when handling such chemicals, said Dr. Samuel Epstein, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois.

″Too often, (chemicals) are slopped around in a careless fashion,″ said Epstein, who stressed that it was important for farmers to learn to use pesticides with caution.

″This blood test is merely a way to detect the damage after it’s done,″ Epstein said.

″We know there is some exposure. I’m seeing more evidence of trying to protect the applicator,″ said Al Heier of the public information office at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washigton. ″The risk is far greater to the applicator than to anyone else.″

The experts say no one knows the long-term effects of such chemicals.

The test can detect exposure to a variety of insecticides, notably organophosphates, used by farmers to keep bugs from destroying their crops. It does not work for herbicides, which control weeds.

Bob Frazee, a farm adviser for Marshall and Putnam counties who started Illinois’ testing program in 1981, says the test is as important to farmers as seatbelts are to motorists.

The initial blood test, measuring an individual’s normal level of the enzyme cholinesterase, is done during the winter when farmers are not exposed to insecticides.

If flu symptoms occur after exposure and a followup test shows the enzyme level has dropped, the problem is pesticides. Treatment usually consists of medication that helps relieve the symptoms quickly.

Symptoms of contamination include headache, nausea, dizziness and fatigue.

John Doull, director of the Center for Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Kansas, said Friday the test is available to farmers and professional applicators in most states, especially in agricultural areas.

In DeKalb County, Hardt said, 130 farmers agreed to a $5 blood test covering a three-year period.

Don Carey, who farms 1,500 acres near Kingston, says he’s convinced it’s worth the trouble.

In 1984, Carey said, he felt as though he were getting the flu and was ″laid up all summer″ with what turned out to be pesticide poisoning.

″You just don’t realize at the time that you’re getting more (chemical) than you should,″ said Carey. ″You’ve got to be more cautious.″

Frazee said a more expensive and sensitive urine test in his area showed 30 percent of farmers had low levels of pesticide contamination that might not produce symptoms.

″We don’t know the long-term effects of these chemicals,″ he said, stressing the need for extreme caution. ″Many had used protective equipment but maybe not the entire day.″

Pesticide manufacturers encourage users to follow label directions and wear protective gear while handling the chemicals, said spokeswoman Betsy Buchan at the National Agricultural Chemicals Association in Washington.

″That is only a reasonable caution,″ Ms. Buchan said.

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