WASHINGTON – They’re cute but potentially deadly.
Tiny pet turtles, some of them the size of a quarter, are to blame for six ongoing salmonella outbreaks that have sickened nearly 200 people and counting – mostly children.
The Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of turtles with shells less than 4 inches long in 1975, an attempt to keep them away from children back when small pet turtles were all the rage.
Turtle-related illnesses dropped sharply after the ban took effect. But as the current outbreaks demonstrate, they’re back. Illnesses have been reported in 30 states since last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A thriving black market keeps churning out the small pets, which are often raised on turtle farms and sold at flea markets, on the Web or in stores.
In Maryland, authorities have seized about 500 undersize turtles in the past year. Law enforcement officials rely on tips, sting operations and periodic pet store inspections to keep the turtles off the market.
We’ve really seen a big influx of these turtles for sale, said Mike Lathroum, a senior officer with the Maryland Natural Resources Police. I don’t know why. ... We’ve not been able to determine the source.
Turtles big and small shed salmonella in their droppings, and the bacteria ends up on their shells and skin. People who touch the turtles or their habitats risk infection if they don’t wash their hands afterward. Cleaning a turtle’s aquarium in a sink or letting one loose in the house also enables the turtle to spread the salmonella to household surfaces.
In a space the size of a pinhead, you can have up to a million salmonella bacteria, said Eduardo Groisman, a microbiology professor at the Yale School of Medicine. That’s more than enough to make a person sick.
Children are especially vulnerable because their immune systems aren’t fully developed.
Eleven turtle-related salmonella outbreaks have taken place since 2006, sickening 535 people, the CDC said.
While turtle farms usually sell to dealers for pennies, those dealers can turn a big profit. One Florida dealer nabbed by federal prosecutors in 2008 for selling 1,000 undersize turtles to a souvenir shop, charged the shop about $3 and, then, the shop resold the turtles for about $15 a pop.