Potential Health Effects of Pesticides
Eric S. Lorenz
Senior extension associate of the Pesticide Education Program.
Penn State Extension
The symptoms of pesticide poisoning can range from a mild skin irritation to coma or even death. Different classes or families of chemicals cause different types of symptoms. Individuals also vary in their sensitivity to different levels of these chemicals. Some people may show no reaction to an exposure that may cause severe illness in others. Because of potential health concerns, pesticide users and handlers must recognize the common signs and symptoms of pesticide poisoning.
The effects, or symptoms, of pesticide poisoning can be broadly defined as either topical or systemic. Topical effects generally develop at the site of pesticide contact and are a result of either the pesticide’s irritant properties (either the active and/or inert ingredient) or an allergic response by the victim. Dermatitis, or inflammation of the skin, is accepted as the most commonly reported topical effect associated with pesticide exposure. Symptoms of dermatitis range from reddening of the skin to rashes and/or blisters.
Some individuals tend to cough, wheeze, or sneeze when exposed to pesticide sprays. Some individuals react to the strong odor and irritating effects of petroleum distillates used as carriers in pesticide products. One symptom is that the eyes, mucous membranes of the nose, and even the sensitive linings of the mouth and back of the throat feel raw and scratchy. This symptom usually subsides within a few minutes after a person is removed from the exposure to the irritant. However, a reaction to a pesticide product that causes someone not only to sneeze and cough but also to develop severe acute respiratory symptoms is more likely to be a true hypersensitivity or allergic reaction. Symptoms of a true allergic reaction range from reddening and itching of the eyes and skin to respiratory discomfort often resembling an asthmatic condition.
Systemic effects are quite different from topical effects. They often occur away from the original point of contact as a result of the pesticide being absorbed into and distributed throughout the body. Systemic effects often include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, headache, and intestinal disorders. In advanced poisoning cases, the individual may experience changes in heart rate, difficulty breathing, convulsions, and coma, which could lead to death.