University of Washington Researcher Receives NIOSH Director's Award


NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 245-0645
September 18, 2007

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is pleased to announce Dr. Richard Fenske of the University of Washington as the recipient of the 2006 NIOSH Director’s Award for his work in the development and application of a novel technique for assessing skin exposure to hazardous chemicals among agricultural workers.

The technique uses fluorescent tracers (chemicals that are visible under long wave ultraviolet light) to detect any pesticides on the skin after a worker has finished spraying. The tracers are mixed in with the pesticides or added to the pesticide spray tank used by the worker. Workers are then asked to stand under ultraviolet light, at which point any area where the fluorescent tracer has deposited will appear to glow. This provides workers with a visual understanding of their risk of skin exposure to pesticides. Agricultural workers may have skin contact with pesticides when treating crops with pesticide mixtures, or in working with crops that already have been treated.

In 2004, the state of Washington initiated mandatory testing of pesticide handlers through a cholinesterase monitoring program, and found that about 20% of the tested workers had blood test results that required their employer to evaluate pesticide handling practices and about 5% had blood test levels that prompted temporary removal from pesticide handling.

The fluorescent tracer technique is being used as a training method to help visually demonstrate to workers and employers the importance of proper use of personal protective equipment and good hygiene. A model for combining laboratory and field studies, the technology has been adopted by others in the U.S. and internationally.

“When my colleagues and I first used the fluorescent tracer technique in the early 1980s for our research on dermal pesticide exposure, we quickly came to appreciate its potential as a training tool,” said Dr. Richard Fenske. “Seeing the fluorescent tracer glowing on their skin and clothes made an immediate impact on the pesticide handlers in our studies and provided them with a better understanding of how contamination had occurred.”

Dr. Fenske’s NIOSH-funded Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health (PNASH) Center has been working with state pesticide education programs, such as the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), which have adapted the method for hands-on training or quick demonstrations. And in Cambodia, the technique was used recently to educate farmers about the hazards of skin exposures to pesticides. PNASH recently published a pesticide safety training manual using the fluorescent tracer method (available in English and Spanish at icon).

“We are pleased to recognize Dr. Fenske’s leadership in this groundbreaking research with important practical applications,” said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. “It is particularly noteworthy that this technique offers a powerful tool for practitioners in reducing the risk of occupational illnesses among Hispanic workers, a significant and growing segment of the agricultural workforce. Especially among the segment of that population who may not be fluent in written English or Spanish, it serves a need for meaningful visual communication.”

Dr. Fenske holds a Ph.D. and MPH in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of California, Berkeley and is the Associate Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health and Community Medicine in Seattle. He is also the Director of the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center.

The NIOSH Director’s Award was begun in 2005 and is awarded annually to a NIOSH grantee to recognize outstanding scientific research achievement in the field of occupational safety and health that has made a major impact or has the potential of making a major impact on worker safety and health. The winner is featured in the NIOSH Annual Report, receives an administrative supplement to their NIOSH grant, and is invited to participate in a major professional meeting and to share scientific ideas with NIOSH senior leadership and other intramural and extramural scientists

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