Pesticide food poisoning from contaminated watermelons in California, 1985

L. R. Goldman, D. F. Smith, R. R. Neutra, L. D. Saunders, E. M. Pond, J. Stratton, K. Waller, R. J. Jackson, K. W. Kizer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Aldicarb, a carbamate pesticide, is the most potent pesticide in the market and has a LD50 of 1 mg/kg. In the United States it is illegal to use aldicarb on certain crops, e.g., watermelons, because it is incorporated into the flesh of the fruit. Once an accidental or illegal use of such a potent pesticide occurs, there is no easy way for the agricultural or public health system to protect the populace. This paper describes the impact of one such event upon the health of individuals and the institutions of California. On July 4, 1985, California and other and other western states experienced the largest known outbreak of food-borne pesticide illness ever to occur in North America. This was attributed to watermelons contaminated through the illegal or accidental use of aldicarb by a few farmers in one part of the state. Within California, a total of 1 376 illness resulting from consumption of watermelons are reported to the California Department of Health Services (CDHS). Of the 1 376 illness, 77% were classified as being probable or possible carbamate illnesses. Many of the case reports involved multiple illnesses associated with the same melon among unrelated individuals. Seventeen indivuals required hospitalization. There were 47 reports of illness involving pregnant women, two of whom reported having subsequent stillbirths. Thirty-five of the remaining pregnant women were followed-up 9 mo after the epidemic; no additional stillbirths were found. To control the epidemic, it was necessary to embargo on July 4 and to destroy all watermelons in the state on July 7 and to effect a field certification program. The epidemic and the costly resultant control measures illustrate the difficulties in assuring the safe use of the most potent pesticide. The use of pesticides is controlled by an elaborate set of crop specific regulations. State and federal regulators use laboratory tests of produce samples to insure that regulations are followed. When inadvertent or illegal applications of pesticide occur in a particular crop, there is no system that guarantees that the public will not be exposed. Four most pesticides, the effects may not be dramatic, but when a potent pesticide appears in a wideley eaten commodity, the impact on health and the institutions that are designed to protect it can be devastating. This paper describes the course of one such event.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)229-236
Number of pages8
JournalArchives of Environmental Health
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1990

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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