Hazmat Studies: Safe Response to Aerial Crop-Spraying Accidents

Thousands of agricultural spraying, loading and fueling operations are carried out each season without incident, but when accidents occur, fire-rescue personnel may encounter hazardous chemicals contaminating equipment, protective clothing and themselves...


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Identifying a pesticide

The first step when arriving at the scene of a pesticide accident is to identify the pesticide being used. If the pilot is conscious, he or she may be able to identify the pesticide. If not, contact the spray operator’s base of operations or the owner of the land being sprayed. Another spray applicator may also be able to provide information. Having a pesticide-label book or The Pesticide Handbook is helpful in identification. You can put together a label book based on pesticides in use in your response area. Labels can be obtained from the pesticide dealer or manufacturers’ websites.

Labels contain one of three “Signal Words” indicating the level of toxicity of the product. “Caution” means the material has low toxicity. The oral lethal dose of a 150-pound human is one ounce to more than a pint. “Warning” means the pesticide is moderately toxic and the oral lethal dose is one teaspoon to one tablespoon. “Danger” means the pesticide is highly toxic with the oral lethal dose being a few drops to one teaspoon. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are also available from dealers and online.

Most pesticides control specific kinds of pests and are applied at designated times of the year. Pesticides applied include herbicides for killing weeds, which may be applied early in the growing season; fungicides applied after crops start to mature; and insecticides, depending on the type of pest present. Agricultural pesticide applicators should be able to identify the potential type of pesticide being applied based on the crop and time of year. Most spray-plane operators use only a small number of specific chemicals in a particular area, so it is not difficult to visit applicators in a fire department’s first-due area to learn about inventory. Chemicals used for corn, wheat, soybeans and grain sorghum (milo) are much the same in all agricultural areas, but other crops may require unique pesticides.

 

Assume the worst

If identification of a pesticide at an accident scene is not possible, assume you are dealing with a highly toxic chemical and protect personnel accordingly. If the pesticide turns out to be a low-toxicity material, no harm will be done. Small amounts of certain pesticides entering the body can cause serious illness or death. Harmful amounts can enter the body through skin absorption, inhalation, ingestion or injection. Primarily entry points through inhalation and contact with the skin are most common. Injection may occur when working around damaged aircraft that is contaminated and injury occurs that breaks the skin. Ingestion may occur when proper decontamination does not occur before smoking, drinking or eating following entry to the contaminated area.

Fire department bunker gear is not designed for chemical exposures and may provide only limited skin protection, if any. Once exposed to certain pesticides, most bunker gear cannot be decontaminated without damage. Manufacturers of pesticides and bunker gear should be consulted when contamination occurs. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) will likely prevent inhalation of toxic vapors, but can become contaminated. If contaminated bunker gear continues to be worn, firefighters may expose themselves to the pesticides over and over. Using proper protective clothing is the best safeguard against dermal exposure to pesticides. Protective clothing requirements are often listed on product labels or a pesticide’s MSDS.

 

Know the danger signs

Treat pesticides diluted or full strength as you would any other hazardous material until it is identified and the hazards are known. Common signs of pesticide poisoning are headache, dizziness, excessive perspiration, unclear vision, vomiting, muscle pain, stomachache and cramps. These also can be signs of other, less-serious illnesses, but if they occur after an incident involving pesticides, have them checked out. Trouble breathing, drooling at the mouth and nose, constricted pupils and fainting are signs of serious poisoning that could result in death. When a patient is suspected of pesticide exposure, take the pesticide label to the hospital with the patient. This may help the physician treat the patient. Do not take the pesticide container to the hospital because this may contaminate the ambulance or hospital emergency department.