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 kids back when small pet turtles were all the rage. The agency found that kids couldn't resist kissing the toy-like reptiles or placing them in their mouths, sometimes contaminating themselves with the salmonella commonly found on turtles.
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.
Turtles big and small shed salmonella in their droppings, and the bacteria end 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.
In 2007, a 3-week-old baby in Florida died from a salmonella infection linked to a pet turtle. A family friend had purchased the turtle at a flea market. Months later, two teenage girls ended up in emergency rooms, one of them with kidney failure, after swimming in an un-chlorinated backyard pool in South Carolina with two undersize turtles.
Eleven turtle-related salmonella outbreaks have taken place since 2006, sickening 535 people, the CDC said.
Law enforcement officials rely on tips, sting operations and periodic pet store inspections to keep the turtles off the market. But resource restraints and logistical hurdles get in the way. Turtle vendors tend to be a transient bunch, often operating online or out of their cars. If they get caught in one venue, they set up shop in another.
Exceptions in the turtle ban allow the sale of these reptiles for educational, scientific and other uses. That presents another challenge. Turtle farmers who sell the reptiles to vendors often say they have no way of knowing what their customers do with the turtles.
Turtle farmers, who now mostly cater to some Asian and European markets, have been fighting back. They say they've been unfairly targeted by the government, given that many animals commonly found in pet stores -- such as lizards, snakes, cats and dogs -- also carry salmonella. Yet the FDA only prohibits the sale of tiny turtles despite technology that can render these turtles salmonella-free, they said.