HUNGARIAN BIRTH DEFECTS BLAMED ON POISONED FISH
August 16, 1993
A report written by a team of German and Hungarian
scientists argues that excessive use of trichlorfon*, an
organophosphate pesticide, at a fish farm is the most
likely cause of the high rate of birth defects in a village
in southwestern Hungary. Eleven out of 15 babies born in the
village of Rinya during 1989-90 suffered from severe birth
defects such as Down's syndrome or abnormalities of the
heart and lung. At least four of the children have died.
The area around Rinya has several ponds used for fish
farming. According to Andre Czeizel of the National
Institute of Hygiene in Budapest and part of the
investigative team, the problems began when the director of
the fish farms began instituting new procedures in 1988 and
ignored established guidelines for using the pesticide. At
that time, trichlorfon was commonly used in Hungary to kill
parasites on farmed fish. However, in this instance, a
method of "chemical fast bathing" was used in which the fish
are taken out of the water, treated in a bath of 40%
trichlorfon for five to ten minutes, and then returned to
the pond. After treatment fish would lie motionless on the
water's surface for hours, or even days at a time.
The residents of the village were not told about the
new procedure. Though fishing was prohibited during these
periods, many of the villagers are very poor and continued
to eat treated fish, which were often taken out of the water
by hand while in a comatose state. All of the mothers of the
15 babies born during 1989-90 reported eating the
contaminated fish during pregnancy. Czeizel and his
colleagues estimated that pregnant women eating the fish
could have reached 40 times the level set by the World
Health Organization for acceptable daily intake.
The team of scientists were able to rule out both
inherited genetic defects and inbreeding as causes of the
defects. Studies and registry data for congenital
abnormalities in Hungary suggest a rate of only one in every
15 births. Before 1988 and after 1990, the number of birth
defects in Rinya was much closer to the Hungarian average.
The scientists concluded that cause was most likely
environmental and suggested that trichlorfon could be
* (2,2,2-trichloro-1-hydroxyethyl)-phosphonic acid dimethyl
ester, also known as chlorofos, metrifonate, and
trichlorphane; brand names include Flibol and Dipterex.
SOURCES: The Lancet, February 27, 1993
- New Scientist, March 6, 1993.
CONTACT: Dr. Andrew E. Czeizel, Orszagos Kozegeszsegugyi
Intezet, 1097 Budapest, Gyali ut 2-6, Hungary.
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