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Pesticides suspected in spike of illnesses in Washington state

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - Pesticides may be linked to a spike in cases involving breathing difficulties and skin rashes in central Washington state, health officials said on Monday.

Washington health department spokeswoman Kelly Stowe said the illnesses could be tied to 15 separate incidents of spraying pesticides in commercial orchards. Roughly 60 people have been sickened in the agricultural region since March, including agricultural workers, neighbors to orchards and a utility crew working near fruit farms.

At least eight people sought emergency medical treatment for symptoms that included nausea, vomiting and headaches, Stowe said.

The majority of pesticides used by commercial orchards are strictly regulated by state and federal environmental and agricultural agencies, which prohibit applications that cause exposure to humans, either directly or in so-called drift events, when pesticides drift from the intended targets, said Washington State Health Officer Kathy Lofy.

"We're concerned with this spike in potential drift exposures (and) protecting people from unnecessary exposure to these chemicals is a responsibility that needs to be taken very seriously," Lofy said in a statement.

The state licenses roughly 24,000 pesticide applicators, dealers, consultants and inspectors, all of whom are required to gain training in applying restricted chemicals safely, said Joel Kangiser, pesticide compliance program manager for the Washington agriculture department.

He said the bulk of incidents under investigation involved so-called air-blast spray applications in which a high-speed fan is used to drive air through a pesticide solution, creating a mist.

(Editing by Edith Honan and Ken Wills)

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