MSU expert Rosenman offers safety advice during National Poison Prevention Week

March 20, 2024

‘Read the label’

A Michigan woman was trying to remove a stain from her bathtub last year using a chemical called acetone. When that didn’t work, she added bleach. That’s when she began suffering a headache, shortness of breath, nausea, high blood pressure and other symptoms of acute poisoning from toxic fumes.

She was among 177 people in Michigan sickened by exposure to pesticides in 2023, according to “Pesticide Illness and Injury Surveillance in Michigan: 2023,” an annual report by the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The MSU researchers released the report at the start of National Poison Prevention Week March 17-23, observed each year to emphasize the importance of safely using and storing chemicals, such as cleaning agents, pesticides and disinfectants.

“The message we want to get across is that people think about pesticide use on farms and in fields,” said Kenneth Rosenman, chief of the MSU College of Human Medicine Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, who oversaw the development of the report. “But half of the pesticide poisonings in Michigan are due to disinfectants and many of those are occurring at home.”

Since 2001, Michigan has gathered reports of 1,605 people who became ill after being exposed at work to pesticides, which includes insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and disinfectants.

In 2006, the state began gathering data on illnesses caused by pesticide exposures that occurred outside of the workplace, including in homes. Since then, 3,059 cases of nonoccupational pesticide-related illnesses were confirmed, including 107 cases in 2023. Hailey TenHarmsel, a College of Human Medicine research assistant, compiled and analyzed data for the report funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many of the illnesses were caused by mixing incompatible chemicals, accidental spills, overuse, improper labeling and failure to follow label directions, according to the report.

In 2023, 31% of occupational cases and 59.5% of nonoccupational cases were caused by exposure to disinfectants.

“Many of us have disinfectants in our homes, and we’re probably using them when we don’t need to,” Rosenman said.

His advice: “Read the label. Some people decide ‘hmmm, I’m going to make this extra strong, or I’m going to mix it with something else and make it extra strong’ and then become overexposed and sick.”

Calls to the Michigan Poison Center about adverse health effects from disinfectants have increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report found.

Cleaners, housekeepers and janitors accounted for the largest number of cases, followed by farmworkers and those working in sales and in offices.

Many of those who became sick in 2023 were bystanders who were inadvertently exposed. That’s what happened to eight men installing solar panels in a southern Michigan field last year when pesticide from a crop duster spraying a nearby field drifted over them. All eight became ill with symptoms including headache, cough, dizziness, nausea and skin irritations. All were treated at a nearby hospital.

The number of pesticide-related illnesses likely is undercounted, Rosenman said.

Some workers likely cannot afford to take time off to seek medical care and fear losing their jobs if they do, he added. Some undocumented workers might not seek treatment, fearing they will be deported.

“If health care providers don’t report as required by public health regulations or people don’t seek medical care,” Rosenman said, “we’re not going to know about it.”

Safety Tips for Poison Prevention