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Farm Chemical Safety Series
Pesticide Injuries And First Aid

The various types of pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.) are formulated to control target pests; however, their toxic nature can make them harmful to people and animals.

Toxicity is the potential a substance has to poison humans, animals, or plants. A wide range of toxicities exists among pesticides, and many can be deadly if encountered in the necessary amount. Small amounts of certain pesticides can cause damage to the human body. For example, insecticides are formulated to kill insects by attacking certain body systems, and they may attack that same system in a human.


Types of Injuries

If someone does suffer ill effects from an accidental exposure to pesticides, his or her symptoms probably will fall into three general categories: heightened sensitivity, acute illness, or chronic illness.

Heightened sensitivity is an allergic reaction on an area of skin. Over time, a pesticide handler may develop an allergy to a chemical he/she has worked with for several years. A rash may develop on any area of skin that contacts the chemical. Another type of sensitivity is called photosensitivity. In this case, pesticide residues left on the skin react with sunlight to form rash-like areas. Photosensitive reactions on children whose fathers worked with pesticides have been mistaken for and reported as child abuse. (Since the reddened area burned and was in the distinct shape of an adult hand, school and health-care officials were sure the child had been beaten.)

Acute injury, appearing shortly after the exposure, is a common type of pesticide injury. Acute injuries are the immediate or near-immediate effects of accidental swallowing, skin contamination, or breathing toxic fumes. A skin contamination that is ignored or not dealt with in time may cause a skin rash in the exposed area. Often, sores or boils may appear shortly after a pesticide has come in contact with the skin.

Accidentally swallowing a pesticide or inhaling the fumes can cause a loss of consciousness and death. Although loss of consciousness and death are usually associated with swallowing or breathing the pesticide, they can be the result of an extreme skin contamination that was not washed or treated properly.

The less common form of injury due to pesticide poisoning is chronic (long-term) injury. This type injury may require weeks, months, or even years after the initial exposure to the pesticide to develop symptoms. Chronic illnesses from pesticides may result in tumors or various cancers. However, over time, frequent minimal exposures to a pesticide can build up in the body and cause an acute reaction, e.g., an attack on the nervous system or lung failure. For these reasons, a pesticide handler must prevent exposures to a pesticide even if there are no visible signs of poisoning.


Blood Tests

Blood enzyme tests can determine if you have any pesticide buildup in your body. An enzyme, cholinesterase, is contained naturally in the blood at levels that vary from one person to another.

It is important to establish an enzyme "baseline" at a time of the year when pesticide handling is minimal (January or February). The baseline helps determine the level of cholinesterase normal for you. Other tests throughout the year indicate what types of danger another exposure could set off. See your doctor to set up a test for your cholinesterase determination.


Internal Poisoning

It is important to recognize the symptoms of chemical poisoning before irreversible damage occurs. Symptoms of pesticide poisoning are listed below. Symptoms of swallowed and inhaled pesticides are generally the same, but inhalation may hurry the effects of poisoning, which include:
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle twitching
  • Weakness
  • Vomiting

If any of these symptoms appear, the victim must receive medical treatment. Delays after the symptoms appear cost valuable time and could mean the difference between life and death.

Should you or a fellow worker accidentally be exposed to a pesticide, it is critical you know first aid procedures to avoid additional dangers. Handling a pesticide poisoning situation wisely can lessen the effects of the exposure and possibly could save your life or that of a co-worker.

The first and most important step in first aid happens before anyone is exposed to a pesticide. That is, you must read and understand the pesticide label to know what the risks are and to be able to act accordingly. Labels provide information on preventing accidents, and the labels provide necessary steps to follow should there be an accident involving chemicals.

Remember, treatment for one type of pesticide poisoning may aggravate or increase the harmful effects of a different chemical. The only way to know which treatments are helpful and which may be harmful is to read the label before a problem occurs.


Symptoms of Pesticide Poisoning

  • Coma
  • Convulsions
  • Headache
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Blurred vision
  • Excessive tearing
  • Dizziness
  • Salivation
  • Sweating
  • Tightness in chest
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Rashes
  • Reddening of skin
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Tremors
  • Muscle twitching
  • Muscle weakness
  • Blisters

Swallowed Pesticide

Swallowing a pesticide is a serious situation. The decision you must make with this accident is whether or not to induce vomiting. Again, read the label and get immediate medical attention.

To care for the victim:

  • If pesticide is still in the mouth, wash it out with plenty of water.
  • Quickly but accurately read the First Aid section of the label again to see if the swallowed chemical should be diluted. When swallowed, some chemicals should be diluted with water or milk. Other chemicals should never be diluted; again, the label provides the information.
  • Check to see if vomiting should be induced. If vomiting is to be induced, turn the victim so that he/she is kneeling forward and does not choke. Ipecac syrup can be used to induce vomiting. If it is not available, put your finger in the victim's mouth and touch the back of the victim's throat. Do not use salt water to induce vomiting or attempt to give liquids.
  • Do not induce vomiting if the victim is unconscious, because the victim could choke.
  • First aid for some chemicals includes giving activated charcoal after vomiting. (Activated charcoal adsorbs many poisons and is available without a prescription. It is a powder mixed with water and given to the victim to drink.) Do not give activated charcoal and ipecac syrup at the same time; the charcoal adsorbs the syrup, and any good effects are wasted.
  • Keep the victim calm and take him/her to the hospital. Also take the product label and any Material Safety Data Sheets you have about the swallowed pesticide.

Inhaled Pesticide

An inhaled pesticide presents a different problem but is just as serious. Breathing a pesticide can hurry the effects of poisoning--quick action is a must.
  • Get the victim to fresh air.
  • Calm the victim, and have him/her lie down.
  • An inhaled pesticide can cause convulsions, so protect the victim's head if convulsions occur.
  • Keep the victim's air passage clear. Tilt the head back to keep the passage open. Remove any foreign object or matter from the victim's mouth.
  • If the victim stops breathing, begin artificial respiration and continue until he/she breathes again or until you reach the hospital. (A Red Cross course is helpful in learning CPR.)

External

Skin Exposure

The hands and forearms account for 95 percent of all skin exposures. Usually these exposures are caused by splashes or spills that occur while mixing the chemicals.

If a chemical gets on your skin:

  • Immediately remove all contaminated clothing;
  • Wash the exposed area with generous amounts of water and soap;
  • Use a brush and soap to remove residues from under your fingernails;
  • If your hair is contaminated, shampoo well;
  • Put on fresh, clean clothes;
  • See a physician.
Whenever the pesticide application is completed or interrupted for a time, follow these same steps whether or not you were accidentally exposed. Follow the same steps before going home. Do not expose your family to the pesticides you have used during the day. (A child's skin is more sensitive to chemicals than is an adult's.)

Eyes

If you splash any chemical into your eyes, immediately wash out your eyes with plenty of cool, clean water. Wash at least 15 minutes to help prevent eye damage. Some chemicals can permanently damage or even blind you in less than 2 minutes. For just such emergencies, set up an eyewash station or keep an eyewash bottle in your first aid kit. Do not wash out the eyes with any water containing drugs, because this could aggravate the situation. Seek medical attention immediately.

At Hospital or Doctor's Office

Remember to take the pesticide label to the medical staff, because the label contains specific instructions for doctors to use in treating poisoning emergencies. It can be difficult to run medical tests to determine in a short time the type of chemical exposure the victim has experienced. These tests use valuable time that could be used to treat the victim.

Prevention

You need to have a well-stocked first aid kit to use in case of a pesticide poisoning or any other medical emergency. Consult the following list to check your first aid kit or, if you are starting from scratch, to make up an emergency first aid packet.
  • Eyewash bottle
  • Plenty of clean water
  • Syrup of ipecac
  • Activated charcoal powder
  • Soap
  • Disposable towels
  • Clean change of clothes
All pesticides have the potential to cause bodily harm, but used properly, they pose no special hazard. Always read the label and follow all instructions when using any chemical. 
Before using any pesticide
STOP
Read the label

Partial support for this publication is provided by Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Bureau of Plant Industry, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

By Herbert Willcutt, Extension Agricultural Engineer, and Trent Spencer, Program Assistant, Extension Agricultural Engineering.

Mississippi State University does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, or veteran status.

Publication 1862
Extension Service of Mississippi State University, cooperating with U.S. Department of Agriculture. Published in furtherance of Acts of Congress, May 8 and June 30, 1914. Ronald A. Brown, Director


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