The Coastal Post - January 2000

Malathion Causes New Health Concerns

By Carol Sterritt

Everyone has a talent or two. Until the age of thirty, one of my "talents" was my lovely skin. Life had blessed me with a marvelous olive complexion. I tanned but never burned. And then I moved from Illinois to the thick of a Med fly zone. After enduring nine months of being aerial-sprayed with a corn-baited substance called "malathion," my skin became blotchy. Complexion-wise, I was in trouble.

So I headed over to Stanford Hospital. "You have vitaligo," they told me. "Don't be concerned; it is a harmless condition. It is a malfunctioning of the immune system. For some reason, your immune system has gone haywire. It thinks your pigment is a disease, and is eating it away."

Logically, I responded with, "So what can you tell me about the immune system?"

"Not much. You see, Ms. Sterritt, the government has never given us researchers any monies to study it. Western medicine knows almost nothing about its workings."

Of course, within eighteen months, the spectre of AIDS raised its vicious little head. Slowly, over the next ten years, funding was given and much research was done on the immune system. But that was later on...

I had, in my early days of vitaligo, done some research of my own. I found out that malathion had been approved during the 1970's. The testing on it had been done in the state of Georgia. During the 1981-1982 Med fly Spraying, whenever the TV announcer would blithely parrot his carefully orchestrated script, we the public were informed that malathion was perfectly safe. Hearing this, I would cringe. How could you test a product on the rich moist loamy soil of Georgia, where it rained every other day in the summer, and where humidity ruled, and from those tests conclude that such a product would be just as safe in a place like Palo Alto, where in summer there were no rains, the soil was like cement, and humidity was non-existent? To me, the two locales were so exceedingly different, that I could not imagine that malathion would dissipate through the California soil with the same ease as it would in Georgia. Rather, I thought that it might simply sit on top of the hardened soil, and then blow about in the dusty top layer.

I also found out that the tests related to human exposure were done with 185 pound males in mind. Pregnant women, children, the elderly, in short, all things female, and all things not 185 pounds, were not part of the experimental quota.

These facts left me greatly concerned. Added to those concerns were my experiences with the "resource center" that was set up for the public to call whenever they felt any physical discomfort or illness. I called a number of times during the spraying, with various symptoms, and was always told that my symptoms were nothing, or were "the flu." (They had no answer for me when I asked how come I was now getting the flu twice or three times in a month, and each time only immediately after the spraying?) Also, I noted that not once was it announced on TV that anyone ever called the center. In fact, we were told on a weekly basis that no calls were made there!

Thus the fact that 1999 has been a banner year for malathion promotion makes me exceedingly nervous. On the East Coast, by late August, we have an outbreak of Encephalitis becoming an excuse for the heavy-dose dusting of the city of New York and surrounding areas. At the same time, the results are in on the 1997-1998 spraying of malathion in Florida. Citizens there, disgusted with various health effects of this substance, were able to have a different substance, "spinosad," used in place of malathion by the end of that spray campaign. It is claimed that spinosad is 100 times safer than malathion.

But the worst news is that hitting closest to home. During the autumn months, I received a number of phone calls alerting me to a malathion promotion by someone I thought would not do such a thing. But I have searched the Web, and though I still say, "Say it ain't so, Dean," it apparently is. On September 9th, Dr. Dean Edell advised his listeners that there was a new FDA-approved "drug" on the market and that it was safe to use for their children's head lice infestations. This new "drug" was my old nemesis, malathion.

Dr. Dean's exact words, as found on are these: "I have no problem recommending malathion as a head lice remedy. For one thing, there's only 0.5 percent of malathion in the product and it is shown to be 100 percent safe and effective against head lice."

However, also on that same Web site are other more disturbing portrayals of malathion. One was the report of 123 illnesses resulting from the malathion spraying in Florida. These include a man out lawn mowing whose skin became blistered. A woman with asthma suffered nausea, diarrhea, coughing, wheezing, and fatigue through her exposure to the chemical. A second article tells of the class action lawsuit filed on behalf of 100,000 citizens in the area where the malathion spray was most prevalent.

So I have to wonder: Dr. Edell, what are you thinking? Nowhere in your advice to listeners do you caution people whose children might have asthma or other respiratory problems. It is known to the science community that malathion damages insects but not humans because humans have an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase that insects do not have. Acetylcholinesterase is involved in transmitting nerve signals throughout the body. It offers protection against an organophosphate like malathion. Thus malathion causes muscle damage, paralysis, respiratory difficulty in insects but not in humans.

But if this protective human enzyme is not working properly, then some individuals may have problems. During the Med fly campaign of 1982, even the officials admitted that allergy remedies, hayfever meds, and sinus relief preparations were flying off the shelves as fast as they could be replaced. Doesn't that sound a warning bell? Also, when a parent administers a head shampoo to treat lice, one important consideration is the time allotment. The malathion preparations call for the product to be on the child's scalp for at least up to two hours. On the Canadian Malathion Advisory Web site, users are told to use "neoprene or rubber gloves, not fabric gloves" when handling the product. Those using malathion are instructed to avoid touching their mouths, their eyes, and to avoid contaminating food or drink with any run-off. Here's the rub, Dr. Dean: How do you encase a child's head inside malathion for two hours and at the same time prevent the child from touching his mouth, his eyes, the snack food, or cup of water, etc?

Then there is the cheerful summary of malathion propaganda on the Florida Malathion Advisory Web site. Although this whole site was set up to dismiss any citizens who may have worries and fears, even this site says: "When tested in animals or preparations of immune system cells in the laboratory, malathion has produced increases and decreases in immune response but here has been no definitive pattern in the results of these tests." Yes, here is where my earlier take on Stanford researchers becomes pertinent. This remark is another comment that as late as 1982, we knew nothing of the immune system, and still even today, we are in the dark. The immune system does not act as we think a system should, and we don't quite know what to make of it in a given situation.

The Florida Web site goes on: "Skin sensitizations (or allergy) has been reported in some animal studies. Overall the tests indicate a potential for skin sensitization from exposure to malathion. This would mean after an initial exposure, any subsequent exposure might induce a stronger skin reaction."

If I was thinking about malathion for young Johnnie or Susie's scalp, this would stop me cold.

So my next question to Dr. Edell is this: "Why should one use this malathion product when there are so many others?" A quick scan of a search engine or two, and I am blessed with references to new anti-lice preparations. Among them are "Not Nice To Lice," "4Lice," "Lice Away" and more. "Not Nice To Lice" comes with a page long reference from Dr. Marion Moses. As a long-time advocate of no pesticides, she has only encouraging things to report about "Not Nice To Lice." I know if I still had school-aged children to de-louse, I would give a product she endorses a chance before I went with a pesticide.

I am not sure why the FDA suddenly decided to give a wink and a nod to the use of malathion in anti-lice preparations. Is it once again a case of industry offering the government officials promises of better corporate jobs when their time with the government has ended? Is it because each time the "record of testing and safety" on malathion gets re-told, the record shines a little brighter, in ways the original researchers might not have intended. (The Canadian Web Site on Malathion actually talks about malathion as though immediately after its use, the chemical dissipates. Strange, I who read those studies back in the eighties remember the careful telling of particular amounts of degradation over 24 hour, then 48 hour, then 72 hour periods. Not "Poof" and it's gone...)

The last concerns I have are the most serious. Malathion breaks down into a substance know as malaoxon. And malaoxon has been implicated in thyroid tumors. I also think of Marin County's most loved and missed activist, Julia Kendall. When she contracted leukemia, she was told that the leukemia had been malathion-induced. She is not able to ask questions of Dr. Edell. I have to ask them for her, because after years of battling the foul cancer, it took her life. I can sum it all up in one word, Dr. Dean. Why?

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