Environmental Issues
with Department of Health

In its role of protecting and enhancing public health, the Washington State Department of Health, Environmental Health Programs (EHP) works with a wide range of issues related to agriculture and agricultural products. This includes monitoring shellfish growing bed sanitation, investigating food-borne illness outbreaks, monitoring drinking water quality, and investigating and documenting alleged pesticide-related illnesses. The following briefly describes three EHP areas of interest.

Nitrate Contamination of Drinking Water Supplies
David Jennings, Division of Drinking Water

DOH has been responding to cases of nitrate contamination of drinking water supplies throughout Washington state. Nitrate contamination poses a significant potential health threat to susceptible individuals, particularly pregnant women and young infants.

Nitrates also serve as an indicator of general water quality - nitrate contamination of a drinking water supply may indicate the presence of other contaminants as well. Sources of excess nitrate in drinking water include fertilizers, animal manure piles, and septic systems.

Most public water systems routinely test for the presence of nitrates and are required to notify their consumers if the maximum contaminant level (MCL) is exceeded. Private, single family wells, however, do not usually undergo the same water quality monitoring.

In attempting to reduce health risks associated with nitrate-contaminated drinking water supplies, DOH personnel are working together with local health jurisdictions and through primary health care providers to implement educational programs targeted at rural residents on private wells. The department is also working with public water supplies to establish approved water treatment techniques aimed at reducing the concentration of nitrates when present in a drinking water supply. To implement long-term solutions to reduce nitrate concentrations in state waters will require help from the Washington state departments of Agriculture and Ecology, farmers, and others, in addition to DOH efforts.

Food Safety
Bill White, Community Environmental Health

Washington state has earned a good reputation for food safety in recent years. Rapid identification of sources of food-borne illnesses, as in the E. coli outbreaks from Jack-in-the-Box hamburger meat in 1993 and Odwalla apple juice in 1996, resulted from effective collaboration between state and local health jurisdictions. Of recent special interest to DOH is the emergence of food-borne illnesses from unlikely sources, such as fruits and vegetables. Current DOH activities focus on maintaining and improving the effectiveness of its food safety efforts. DOH is now collaborating with other government agencies and industry, developing microbiological and labeling standards for food, and educating both public and private sectors on the best methods to limit risks to the food supply.

Illness Related to Pesticide Exposure
Patricia Macier, Office of Toxic Substances

Part of the responsibility of DOH is to be concerned with both natural and artificial environmental factors. With this in mind, DOH has been given a specific legislative mandate to monitor pesticide-related illnesses.

Pesticide exposure can cause health consequences ranging from eye, skin, and throat irritation to more serious symptoms. Symptoms may mimic other common maladies and, therefore, go unrecognized.

The yearly Pesticide Incident Reporting and Tracking Review Panel (PIRT) Report summarizes pesticide-related illnesses. The PIRT Report is a compilation and analysis of pesticide-related investigations conducted by DOH and the departments of Agriculture (WSDA) and Labor and Industries (L&I). In 1996, DOH investigated 402 incidents involving 504 persons; WSDA investigated 251 complaints; and L&I, Consultation and Compliance Services Division, conducted 39 pesticide-related investigations. The 1996 PIRT Report indicates that DOH staff have observed a decrease in the seriousness of reported complaints, especially for occupationally related cases. Factors contributing to this decline may be increased awareness of risks associated with pesticide exposure, increased regulatory activity, and a reduction in use of highly toxic chemicals.

King and Yakima Counties each reported the highest number of cases. Yakima had 73 incidents involving 112 individuals, and King County had 40 incidents involving 45 individuals. As in prior years, insecticides were most often involved with illness. Combinations versus single use pesticides were more frequently implicated.

The information in Table 1 summarizes 237 DOH cases classified definitely, probably, or possibly related to pesticide exposure. Classification is based on documentation of exposure, medical record review, and case investigation.

Table 1

 Type of Activity  Number of Cases (%)
 agriculture  97 (41%)
 commercial/industrial  33 (14%)
 residential environment  74 (31%)
 other  33 (14%)
 Source of Exposure  
 direct exposure to pesticide  109 (46%)
 exposure to pesticide residues  59 (25%)
 pesticide drift  36 (15%)
 other  33 (14%)

Agricultural exposure accounted for 41% (97) of the cases. Fifty-three percent of those occurred in the fruit production industry, which is highly labor intensive and requires significant pesticide usage. DOH will continue monitoring illness associated with pesticide exposure to determine current trends and to develop necessary intervention strategies. In addition, DOH and PIRT will identify additional stakeholders that will benefit from the information contained in the PIRT Annual Report.

For additional information on the Pesticide and Surveillance Section, or to request a copy of the PIRT Annual Report, call DOH at (360) 236-3360.

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