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 (FDA) banned the sale of turtles with shells less than four 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 (CDC). 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. They've busted two turtle vendors in Montgomery County in the past two weeks: One for selling the turtles to a Silver Spring store; the other for hawking them from a parking lot at the Six Flags America theme park in Largo, said Mike Lathroum, a senior officer with the Maryland Natural Resources Police.
"We've really seen a big influx of these turtles for sale," Lathroum said. "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.