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Hawaiian Health Officials Issue Warning Over an Outbreak of Brain-Invading Parasites

Officials in Hawaii are alarmed about a spike in cases of rat lungworm disease. In Maui alone, there have been six confirmed cases according to Science Alert. Compare that number to the two confirmed cases in the previous decade and you have cause for concern. 

Rat lungworm disease is a parasitic roundworm that is rare in Hawaii, but more common in Southeast Asia. The worm can move into the nervous system and brain. Although sometimes asymptomatic, it is a common cause of eosinophilic meningitis and can lead to excruciating pain, permanent brain damage and even death.

The parasite originates in the lungs of rats, but is most commonly spread by snails. These slugs and snails can contaminate produce with their mucus excretions. Lettuce is particularly susceptible to rat lungworm contamination.

There are a number of competing theories for why this outbreak occurred. The good news is that it can be prevented by proper cleaning of produce.

Millions of people are sickened by contaminated produce every year. Foodborne illness is often associated with meat products, but some of the biggest contamination outbreaks in recent years have actually been linked to contaminated produce like spinach, romaine lettuce and tomatoes. Rat lungworm falls into this category and can be dealt with in much the same manner.

One obvious tip is to wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after handling produce. Cut away any damaged or bruised areas of produce and gently rub produce under running water before peeling. A clean vegetable brush can be used to scrub firmer produce and make sure you dry it with a paper towel when done. Lettuce is a known vector for rat lungworm, so throw away the outermost leaves and be particularly careful when cleaning the head.

Rat lungworm is a concern in the Pacific basin, but it is important to consider the more universal danger posed by pesticides. Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are often laden with these toxic chemicals and require careful monitoring.

The level of pesticide contamination can vary greatly between crops. Eating organic is one of the best ways to lower your overall pesticide burden. The largest study of its kind found that people who "often or always" ate organic food had about 65 percent lower levels of pesticide residues compared to those who ate the least amount of organic produce. 

Unfortunately, the amount of glyphosate you are consuming is still unknown because the USDA does not test for it. Six cases of rat lungworm made national headlines, but Roundup contamination does not concern regulators. Glyphosate was once used sparingly because it killed basically any plant it touched. That was before Monsanto genetically engineered Roundup resistant crops and now this powerful poison is sprayed with reckless abandon by farmers around the globe.