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Lifting of 31-year-old ban would allow sale of potentially Salmonella-bearing turtles.

By Rose Hoban

Turtles are cute. They wiggle their legs and retract their heads into their shells. Children find them irresistible.

And they are well-documented harbors for bacteria, such as Salmonella.

Currently, federal rules forbid the sale of turtles less than four inches long due to the risk of Salmonella infection from handling the critters. Photo credit: Jessi Swick, flickr creative commons

That’s why the FDA banned the sale of turtles less than four inches long in 1975, avoiding an estimated 100,000 cases of Salmonella infection nationally in children each year. North Carolina quickly followed suit, banning all sale of turtles in the same year.

But sales of turtles larger than four inches could again become legal in North Carolina if a current regulatory reform bill makes it into law.

The bill, as originally written and passed by the House last summer, didn’t include anything about turtles. However, in late May of this year, the bill re-appeared on the Senate side of the legislative building with considerable changes, including a repeal on the restriction of pet turtle sales.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has chased down four multi-state outbreaks of turtle-acquired Salmonella in 2016 alone. The outbreaks have sickened 133 people, including 53 kids younger than 5. Thirty-eight people have been hospitalized.

“Salmonella is naturally occurring on many reptiles; the Salmonella is living on them, in them and they’re this natural source,” said NC State assistant professor Ben Chapman, who writes about infectious disease outbreaks for the website Barfblog. “Often, when we see Salmonella outbreaks, and we don’t know the specific cause, investigators will start looking for reptiles.”

Turtles can be bought in states that didn’t ban them, and frequently, people don’t realize the risks. So every year, cases turn up. Chapman said frequent outbreaks have been traced to schools and day-care facilities that might keep turtles in an aquarium.

“The risk factor is that handling that turtle and treating it like a pet, and then not washing hands, or letting it move around in a place, like a table or a desk,” Chapman said. “Then kids put their hands on that and they put them into in to their mouths.”

Not to mention that a kid might eat lunch on a desk where a turtle might have been an hour before.

“Turtles are so cute. And kids can’t help but touch them and play with them,” said Lynette Tolson, head of the North Carolina Public Health Association. “But they’re so, so, so dangerous.”

And expensive

As recently as 2007, a 3-week-old baby in Florida died of Salmonella after a friend gave the family a pet turtle around the time of the birth, recalled John Morrow, a primary care physician who’s also the health director in Pitt County.

“And they identified the Salmonella as being the Salmonella that infected the child and killed the child,” Morrow said.

The turtle was implicated in the infant’s death because a public health department like Morrow’s did the investigation and the lab testing. And those investigations take personnel and money away from other services, he said, because departments such as his are mandated to investigate. And those other services often don’t get done.

“That typically means that we pull staff that normally may be providing nursing services, environmental health services, clerical services, to start those investigations,” he said. “It may take us days, weeks, even months.”

Those investigations can cost tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars, services for which county health departments get no reimbursement.

“There are no investigation dollars that are identified for public health,” in North Carolina, Morrow said. “We’re losing money every time we launch one of those investigations.”

End run

Usually, the North Carolina Commission for Public Health reviews statutory language on issues relating to the public’s health. That didn’t happen with the change in the turtle regulations.

“It’s made up of volunteers who are in professions that will look at all the different areas and issues,” Tolson said. She said the commission really gets into the weeds on all the implications of measures such as this.

“They issue rulings based on science and evidence and nothing is taken lightly, or for granted when they make a ruling. They get down to the nitty gritty on what are the implications,” she said.

Tolson worried that tucking this language into the regulatory reform bill does an end run around the science.

“There’s a reason why we have the Commission for Public Health, there’s a reason we have local boards of health,” Tolson said. “When we’re bypassing these, it really puts the health of our citizens in jeopardy.”

John Morrow said he’s written to Sen. Louis Pate, who is his state senator, but is also a co-chair of the Senate Health Care Committee.

“Forty years ago… we spent the time and we spent the money and we determined that turtles were causing these deaths and hospitalizations and illnesses all over the place,” Morrow said.

“That’s why in their great wisdom, the General Assembly passed a law saying, stop the sale of turtles in North Carolina, so we can stop this madness of repeated Salmonella infections.”

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

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