Medics in Panama see side effects of pesticide use

Maj. Christie L. Barton, deployed to Medical Readiness Training Exercise Panama from the Surgeon General’s office at the Pentagon, examines the retina of a 9-month-old infant named Efran at a school in Santa Maria, Panama, July 18. (Air Force photo by Capt. Ben Sakrisson)

Maj. Christie L. Barton, deployed to Medical Readiness Training Exercise Panama from the Surgeon General’s office at the Pentagon, examines the retina of a 9-month-old infant named Efran at a school in Santa Maria, Panama, July 18. (Air Force photo by Capt. Ben Sakrisson)

Maj. Darrell Grise uses a slit-lamp to look for cataracts and assess the health of the front of a patient's eye July 18 at a school in Santa Maria, Panama. Approximately 3,100 patients was seen by Air Force medics July 14 through 18. Major Grise is an optometrist deployed to Medical Readiness Training Exercise Panama from the 96th Aeromedical Dental Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Ben Sakrisson)

Maj. Darrell Grise uses a slit-lamp to look for cataracts and assess the health of the front of a patient's eye July 18 at a school in Santa Maria, Panama. Approximately 3,100 patients was seen by Air Force medics July 14 through 18. Major Grise is an optometrist deployed to Medical Readiness Training Exercise Panama from the 96th Aeromedical Dental Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Ben Sakrisson)

SANTA MARIA, Panama -- The town of Santa Maria is surrounded by rice fields that, until eight years ago, were sprayed with pesticides from airplanes. In recent years, the Panamanian government has gone to extensive lengths to take environmental issues into consideration, and now a large area near the town has been designated a nature reserve for migratory birds.

Officials from Panama's Ministry of Health say that the area around the nature reserve is now carefully controlled, even with regard to the number of cattle allowed to graze there. As a further measure, pesticides are not allowed nearby in order to keep the groundwater clean.

Many men work in the fields surrounding Santa Maria and most are unable to take time off to visit doctors here for the Medical Readiness Training Exercise Panama, said one teacher here. Few working-age men were seen as patients at the Santa Maria site; despite doctors here treating a higher than average number of daily patients.

Though pesticides are no longer sprayed from the air, spraying from the ground by farmers continues, which has led to a high incidence of pulmonary disease, said a local doctor here.

As a suspected lingering effect of past pesticide use, teachers say that many children in the area have learning disabilities, and the doctors are seeing much higher rates of glaucoma, cataracts and neurological disorders than at the previous MEDRETE site of Cabuya; only 30 minutes down the road.

"I am amazed at the prevalence of depression and the lack of medication for the treatment of it," said Capt. Bryan A. Farford, a family physician here from the 81st Medical Operations Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. "I also saw many more cases of uncontrolled diabetes, genetic disorders and complaints of allergies here than at Cabuya."