Depression among Victims of South Mississippi's Methyl Parathion Disaster

Article excerpt

Human-induced disasters have long been considered responsible for a wide array of physiological, psychological, and economic distress. This study examined depressive symptoms among victims of south Mississippi's methyl parathion disaster. Results indicated that irrespective of the level of methyl parathion contamination in respondents' dwellings, more than half the victims interviewed reported depressive symptoms at levels suggesting probable clinical depression. Those at greatest risk of depressive symptoms were people who had been exposed to the neurotoxin for the longest period of time, among whom there was an overrepresentation of women and African Americans. Despite high statistical levels of depression, few victims used mental health services. Implications for social work's response to human-induced disasters are provided.

In November 1996, in Jackson County, Mississippi, the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH), Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that the biggest human-induced disaster in U.S. history had taken place. The agencies had discovered that 1,800 homes and businesses had been contaminated with methyl parathion (MP) over a 10-year period. The majority of contaminated buildings were residential (1,777), but day care centers, churches, and restaurants had been contaminated also. The initial cost of the decontamination and restoration of more than 700 homes and businesses was $69 million. In some cases decontamination meant replacing all or most of the interior surfaces; in others it meant replacing the entire building. The local press claimed that more than $100 million was spent for cleanup--the highest single-year expenditure of federal money ever spent on clean up of toxic material (Braun, 1997). The disaster also took a toll on human beings in terms of physical and psychological symptoms.

MP, known as "cotton poison," was a pesticide approved for use in agriculture, to be sprayed over fields as a way of controlling insects. In Mississippi it was most frequently used in cottonfields for controlling the boll weevil. If the chemical is used correctly, MP poses minimal health risk to people, because sunlight and microbes in the soil break down the chemical's structure in a few days. It is, however, illegal to use MP indoors to kill insects, despite its effectiveness. MP has not been approved for indoor use because toxicity levels can remain high for many years in enclosed or confined spaces. These spaces (in buildings) exacerbate the effect of the chemical because toxic vapors remain concentrated.

HISTORY OF MP DISASTERS

The MP disaster in Mississippi was not the first involving this chemical. Several similar, although smaller-scale, disasters have been documented in other parts of the United States (Reid, 1997). In 1994 MP contamination of homes and businesses was discovered in Lorain County, Ohio. In April 1995 a similar incident occurred in Detroit. In 1998 a new wave of MP contamination was discovered in various parts of the country and appeared to be linked to the use of MP in Mississippi. This Mississippi link or the cotton poison cartel" (Reid, 1997) referred to a distribution network, most of which involved the illegal shipping of MP in plastic milk containers or glass jars to cities across the country where residents were fighting insect infestations, mainly cockroaches. The most recent MP poisonings have been in Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Memphis, although illegal spraying of the substance has been reported also in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Texas, Ohio, and Michigan (Meadows, 1997).

PHYSIOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF MP

MP is a dangerous substance that destroys or damages an enzyme (cholinesterase) essential for the proper working of the nervous systems in humans, animals, and insects. MP can be harmful if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. Initial exposure to MP, through inhalation and absorption through the skin, can be followed by a host of symptoms during a 12-hour period (U. …

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