Hesperian Health Guides

Pesticide Poisoning Can Look Like Other Illnesses

In this chapter:

There are many different signs of pesticide poisoning, and they are easily confused with the signs of flu, malaria, an allergic reaction, or lung diseases. It is unusual to have only one sign. Most of the time several signs come together. You might not even know someone was poisoned because the signs can develop slowly.

A group of people talking.
What are some of the signs of pesticide poisoning?
Headache and dizziness.
Vomiting, sweating and diarrhea.

Note for the health worker:

To find out if someone's health problems may be caused by pesticides, ask some simple questions, such as:
A group of people talking.
But the flu also causes vomiting and sweating.
So does malaria.
And having a hangover!
And being pregnant!
A woman asks questions.
Do you work on a farm? Have you been in contact with pesticides lately? Has there been spraying in the fields near where you live?

How do you know if a health problem is caused by pesticides?

Sometimes you can find out if a sickness is from pesticides by talking to people who have the same sickness or work with the same pesticides. When people share the same signs of poisoning, and there are pesticides used nearby, there is a good chance they are all sick from the pesticides.

Doctors do not always have the answers

A woman tries to speak as a doctor at a clinic holds up his hand.

Carolina worked on a large strawberry farm. One day her stomach hurt and her eyes burned. She stopped working and went to talk to her boss. Her boss told her to go see the company doctor.

When she got to the doctor’s office, he was not very friendly or helpful. Carolina thought pesticides might have made her sick, but she was too shy to say this to the doctor. The doctor did not ask her about her work or why she thought she was sick.

The doctor asked Carolina questions that made her feel like being sick was her fault: What did you eat today? Do you smoke cigarettes or drink a lot of alcohol? What did you do after work yesterday? Did you sleep enough?

In the end the doctor told her she was just lazy and only wanted a note to get out of work. He even said she might be sick from being drunk!

Finally the doctor gave her some pills for headaches. She was not sure the pills would help, but she took them anyway. As she went home, she wondered about going back to work the next day. She felt worse after seeing the doctor than she did before.

How could Carolina have gotten better care?

Perhaps if she brought the label of the pesticide she worked with and told the doctor it was what made her sick, he would have considered pesticide poisoning as a cause for her illness.

But even if she had done this, it might not have helped. The doctor worked for the company that owned the strawberry farm. Often company doctors will not admit that pesticides make farm workers sick. Pesticide illness can be difficult and expensive to treat. The company may prefer to hire new workers rather than treat their sick workers.

Perhaps Carolina could have gone to another doctor. But this would have been expensive, and she would have to take more time off from work. And most doctors do not know much about pesticides.

This is a very difficult problem for Carolina, and for all farm workers. The best way for farm workers like Carolina to take care of their health is to work together to change the conditions that make them sick in the first place.

Body mapping

This activity can help people share their experiences of how pesticides affect them. By drawing an outline of a body and marking where they have been affected by pesticides (a body map), people can begin to discuss common dangers they face in their work. This is a drawing activity and a group discussion.

A woman draws a large outline of a body.

Time: 1 to 2 hours

Materials: Large drawing paper, pens or pencils, tacks or tape

  1. Make a large drawing of a person’s body. Use sheets of paper that are as large as a person, or several smaller sheets taped together. Have a person lie down on the paper while another person traces her outline. Next, tape or tack the drawing to the wall so that everyone can see it. If you want you can make 2 drawings, 1 for the front of the body and 1 for the back of the body.

  2. Show which parts of our bodies have been affected by pesticides. Each person in the group marks the paper with an X on a part of the body where he or she has been affected by pesticides. If the group is small, each person can say what the health effect was. For example, was it stomach pain, skin rashes, dizziness? He or she might also say what caused the health problem. Was it a spill, a mixing accident, drift, just normal work, or something else?

    If the group is large, it may be easier for someone to guide the discussion of health effects after everyone makes their marks. The activity leader can point to each mark and ask what effect the mark represents. The important thing is that everyone includes their own experience of being affected by pesticides on the body map.

  3. Ask questions to help people talk about pesticides. It can be helpful for another person to take notes on a large sheet of paper that everyone can see. The talk may be most focused if at first it is limited to 3 main questions, such as: What effects have people felt from pesticides? What activities or kinds of exposure have caused the effects? What pesticides have caused the effects?

    The body map shows where people feel the harmful effects of pesticides. The discussion and the notes are a good way to record how many people suffer from the same problems with pesticides and what exposures are most common. Further discussion can cover ways to prevent more exposures.

This page was updated:05 Jan 2024