While necessary precautions should always be taken to prevent or minimise exposure to agrochemicals, agrochemical poisoning is not uncommon. It can happen from one short exposure (acute poisoning) or from many exposures over a long time (chronic poisoning).
Points of entry
There are three ways in which agrichemicals can enter the human body:
- through the skin or eyes (dermal),
- through the mouth (oral) and
- through the lungs (respiratory or inhalation).
Certain areas of the body (e.g. forehead, groin) absorb agrichemical residues more easily and rapidly than others. Residues can be inadvertently moved to a high absorption zone (e.g from a hand to a sweaty forehead), creating situations where absorption is higher than swallowing the agrichemical!
To protect yourself from dermal exposure, you should:
- Wear protective clothing and equipment when using agrichemicals or repairing contaminated equipment
- Spray during periods when there is little or no wind
- Do not re-enter a sprayed field without protective clothing until the re-entry time has elapsed
- If your clothes become contaminated, change immediately. Wash affected areas of the skin
- Change clothes as part of the clean-up after spraying at the end of the day
- Wash and shower after spraying
- Wear clean clothes at the start of each day when spraying
- Always wear eye protection when you measure or mix agrichemicals
- Always wear eye protection when agrichemical sprays or dusts may contact your eyes
- Never wipe your eyes with contaminated gloves or hands
Protect yourself from oral exposure by:
- Never using your mouth to clear a spray hose or nozzle
- Always storing agrichemicals in their original labeled containers
- Never placing agrichemicals in an unlabelled bottle or food container
- Never using your mouth to begin siphoning an agrichemical
- Always washing after handling agrichemicals and before eating, drinking, smoking, or using the toilet
- Never leaving agrichemicals unattended
- Avoiding splashes or dusts when mixing agrichemicals
- Labelling your agrichemical measuring containers
You will protect yourself from respiratory exposure by:
- Wearing an appropriate and properly fitting respirator if it is required on the label, or if agrichemicals are used or mixed in poorly ventilated areas, or if there is a possibility of inhaling spray droplets, vapour, or powder
- Do not re-enter a treated area too soon
- Follow the re-entry guidelines on the label
- Ventilate greenhouses or enclosed structures after agrichemical application, before re-entry.
- Do not apply agrichemicals when air temperatures are above 30°C.
Symptoms of poisoning
Both acute and chronic poisoning can exhibit mild, moderate or severe symptoms.
- loss of appetite
- irritation of throat and nose
- eye irritation
- constriction of pupils
- blurred vision
- skin irritation
- changes in mood
- loss of weight
any mild symptoms plus any of:
- abdominal cramps
- excessive salivation
- constriction in throat and chest
- abdominal cramps
- rapid or slow pulse
- excessive perspiration
- muscle incoordination
- mental confusion
any mild or moderate symptoms plus any of:
- inability to breathe
- chemical burns on skin
- respiratory distress
- loss of reflexes
- uncontrollable muscle twitching
Although the acute condition can be directly related to the agrichemical, the user may not be aware of this. The symptoms may appear as a general feeling of sickness, skin irritation or sudden and otherwise unexplained serious illness.
Chronic effects, on the other hand, take longer to emerge and are sometimes difficult to relate to agrichemicals or the use of one particular substance because different ones may have been used by the individual concerned. Also, when several agrichemicals accumulate in the body the chronic health effect may be caused by the cumulative effect of these chemicals.
Actions to take
If you are exposed to a pesticide and begin to feel symptoms, remain calm, phone for help or try to find someone to help.
Take emergency action immediately when you suspect a pesticide poisoning. Treating a person immediately may help prevent serious effects and consequences.
- Make sure it is safe for you to help (e.g. put on PPE as required before you help)
- Move the victim from the contaminated area and remove any contaminated clothing
- Make sure the victim is breathing
- Seek immediate medical help and dial 111 for an ambulance.
- Keep the patient comfortable, warm and restful.
If you are using organophosphate or carbamate agrichemicals (check the label) you should consult a doctor to arrange for cholinesterase testing. The base-line tests must be done 8–10 weeks before you use the chemical, so plan ahead.