A man in a white van has been going around Sonoma County recently, selling tiny red-eared slider turtles as pets, in violation of a 1975 federal rule that bans the sale and distribution of turtle hatchlings because they can carry salmonella.

According to reports, the man, who has been described as either Latino or Asian in his mid-50s, has sold the turtles, barely a few weeks old, to people in Santa Rosa shopping centers, downtown Cotati and the Sebastopol flea market.

Turtles and other reptiles often can carry strains of salmonella on their bodies, and the federal Food and Drug Administration in 1975 banned the sale of turtles less than 4 inches long because of the tendency for children to put them in their mouths.

Dawn Clayton, the manager of the Pet Club store on Santa Rosa Avenue, said she's seen about 10 cases within the past two weeks where people have brought the tiny turtles in, seeking help and advice for how to care for them. In some cases, the turtles were dying, and Clayton said she has taken it upon herself to confiscate some of the the baby critters.

"I've had two surrendered to me because the people had no idea," Clayton said.

Employees at other pet stores, including Village Pets & Supplies on Montgomery Drive, also have received reports from people who have purchased the turtles from a man in a white van.

Karen Holbrook, Sonoma County's deputy public health officer, said her department and local state Fish and Wildlife officials have been alerted and are investigating.

Fish and Wildlife officials are "looking for this guy," she said. But the information about the street vendor has been vague.

"We would really love to get more specific information like a license plate, a name," she said.

Holbrook said salmonella — a diarrhea-related illness — has been associated with both amphibians and reptiles, including toads, frogs, snakes, lizards and turtles. Illness from salmonella varies from mild to severe, and in some cases it is life-threatening, she said.

Sometimes, it can go on to cause systemic infections throughout the body, though in most cases the result is diarrhea, Holbrook said.

One Santa Rosa woman who purchased two of the turtles said she had no idea it was illegal to sell such small turtles. Jennifer, who asked that only her first name be used, said she bought her turtles about two weeks ago from a man in a white van who came to the Santa Rosa beauty salon where she works.

She paid $35 for the two turtles and a container. She said the man told her the turtles were 10 or

11 months old and that they would not grow much larger. One of the turtles died.

When she found out that she had purchased an illegal turtle, Jennifer said, "I was horrified because I didn't know anything about turtles."

Jennifer said the man told her the turtles came from Los Angeles.

Both Clayton and Patricia Smith, the fish department manager at Pet Club, have taken it upon themselves to find the seller. Over the weekend, the two have gone on "covert missions" to places like the Sebastopol flea market searching for the man in the van.

Smith said she got salmonella two years ago from eating undercooked chicken and it took her two or three weeks to recover.

"A 5-year-old kid cannot afford to lose 10 pounds," she said. "I know that kids could get sick with salmonella. It's no laughing matter."

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory about multi-state outbreaks of salmonella that were traced back to the sale of small turtles.

The CDC reported that a total of 391 persons infected with salmonella were reported in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Of these, 29 percent of cases resulted in hospitalization. No deaths have been reported, the CDC said.

Seven in 10 cases were children 10 or younger; one-third were children 1 year old or younger, and 45 percent of cases were Latinos.

Clayton said most people don't understand that red-eared sliders and other turtles require a lot of care and the right environment, including a tank with heat and UV-B lamps. The tank should be cleaned regularly, she said.

Holbrook said that beyond the FDA's ban on small turtles, the public should be aware that salmonella also is associated with many amphibians and reptiles. In the case of turtles, salmonella can be shed from their stool into the water of their tanks, so proper care is required.

"The entire aquarium could be contaminated," she said. "For people who own them, it's important to wash hands after handling them. ... Small turtles are a particular risk because they're popular with little guys and the little guys put them in their mouths."

If you spot anyone selling tiny turtles, you can call the Fish and Wildlife tip line at 888-334-2258.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.