Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Environmental Pesticide Exposure in Honduras Following Hurricane Mitch

Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Environmental Pesticide Exposure in Honduras Following Hurricane Mitch

Article excerpt

Voir page 293 le resume en francais. En la pagina 294 figura un resumen en espanol.


On 24 October 1998, the Atlantic tropical storm Mitch was upgraded to a hurricane that quickly developed into one of the strongest and most damaging ever to hit Central America. As hurricane Mitch traveled inland over Honduras on 30 October 1998, it produced torrential rains that caused catastrophic floods and mud slides throughout the country. Rivers flooded Tegucigalpa, the capital, and swept onwards toward the south. The Honduran National Emergency Commission reported that 6546 people were killed and 1.1 million people were displaced by the hurricane and the associated flooding. Overall, 1.5 million people were affected.

The flooding increased the potential for environmental contamination by toxic chemicals, since inundated toxic waste sites can release harmful chemicals stored at ground level (1). When industrial and agricultural areas are submerged under flood water, unusually high levels of agricultural chemicals and pesticides can be flushed into residential areas and rivers, exacerbating the environmental contamination (2). Consequently, in the aftermath of hurricane Mitch, a major concern for the Ministry of Health was that people would be exposed to hazardous chemicals, particularly organophosphates -- compounds that had replaced chlorinated pesticides, which were used widely in Honduras to control agricultural and nuisance pests until they were banned in 1984. Residues of organophosphate pesticides can be found widely in food, in drinking-water, in occupational settings and in public places (3, 4).

The goals of this study were to evaluate the chemical contamination of potable water and the extent of human exposure to chemicals as a result of the flooding associated with hurricane Mitch.


To identify potable water sources and assess potential health effects from hurricane Mitch, we conducted both an environmental exposure assessment, including the collection and analysis of environmental and biological samples, and a population-based cross-sectional household survey in the barrio of Istoca, Department of Choluteca. We selected this community of 440 households and approximately 3100 residents because it was located in an area that was hard hit by the hurricane and the subsequent flooding, and because it was known that 300-400 barrels of pesticides and chemicals had been released into the community, including toluene and endosulfan. The study sample consisted of households in Istoca with adolescents aged 15-18 years who had been resident in the barrio since August 1998.

Cross-sectional survey

The questionnaire assessed household demographics; occupational exposure to pesticides; the quality of drinking-water; the handling, treatment and storage of drinking-water; whether an individual had a history of smoking; and self-reported health effects after the hurricane and at the time of the interview. Assuming that 15% of the water sources were chemically contaminated, and taking a confidence interval of 95% and a power of 80%, we calculated that a significant sample size corresponded to 133 households. To account for nonresponses (e.g. people refusing to participate or not being home), the desired sample size was increased by 25% to 166 households. After losses due to attrition, we conducted interviews with one adult in 155 households. A total of 96% of 155 households surveyed had at least one member aged 15-18 years who had lived in Istoca since August 1998. In these households, a parent or guardian of the adolescent was interviewed.

Environmental sampling

The environmental assessment directly sampled 12 water sources that were reported to have been contaminated during the flood. These sites included:

1. A cistern from Pinguino, a private water purification company.

2. Bags of water purchased directly from Pinguino. …

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