July 18 – 24, 2001
How New York's Mosquito-Spray Campaign Sprayed a Deadly Neurotoxin
by Erik Baard
For months, the malathion sat in Deep South warehouses and outdoor storage tanks, baking in the summer sun. Destined for mosquito-control programs, the insecticide was supposed to be stored at temperatures no higher than 77 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid conversion to a more deadly poison. But there it was, unrefrigerated in parts of the country where the mercury can climb toward 100 day after day.
Documents from the manufacturer, Cheminova, indicate the company was aware that its products were stored improperly by users as early as 1996, and such practices apparently continue. No one knows exactly how toxic the chemical has become at any given site, or how much of that malathion has been shipped north for use in New York's attack on the West Nile virus.
A Cheminova executive hung up the phone when asked for comment, not surprising given the extent to which the company has been buffeted by bad press. In 1984, two kids in Mississippi were killed after being exposed to Cheminova's methyl parathion. Six years later, the death of a California farm worker who'd ingested parathion led to federal rules aimed at cutting use of the pesticide in half. In 1996, two more Mississippi children were made severely ill by the pesticide. The company has been a favorite target of groups like Greenpeace.
Now a fresh lawsuit by Long Island Sound lobstermen alleges some of the toxicstew was sprayed here, beginning in 1999. They say it killed off crustaceans in the tristate area and perhaps harmed humans as well.
Early evidence from the Environmental Protection Agency indicates the lobstermen may be right. While downplaying the potential damage, the EPA recently reported that tests of malathion in New York-area holding tanks found traces of a poisonous neurotoxin called isomalathion – a byproduct created when malathion is exposed to high temperatures.
Yet from the beginning of his all-out aerial assault, Mayor Rudy Giuliani assured the public that proper precautions had been taken and the spraying posed little risk. Stay inside, he advised, and close your windows. Giuliani couldn't warn New Yorkers of the possible extra hazard, because he didn't know.
Other polls have been more curious. Documents released in a lawsuit show that in 1996, a Louisiana official asked Cheminova whether storage at high temperatures made its product more dangerous. In an internal memo marked "URGENT URGENT URGENT URGENT URGENT," an executive with the Danish company cautioned against a straight answer. "If you want to give answers in black and whit [sic]," he wrote, "the correct answer . . . is 'YES.' "
The letter was obtained by the legal firm Smith, Jones & Fawer as part of its action on behalf of Floridians who say they were collateral victims in a war against medflies. The firm is also pushing for a class-action suit on behalf of the local lobstermen. And there's talk of filing a suit on behalf of people in New York who think they've been harmed by the spraying.
Cheminova has consistently defended its product in the press, saying it is safe and has been tested for isomalathion before being sent to customers. For now, New York City has decided against another round of malathion, also known as Fyfanon ULV (ultra-low volume), though it reserves the right to use the chemical. Spraying began in parts of the state last month. Some three dozen people sought treatment at a hospital after they were swamped by a malathion cloud at a softball game for teenage girls in Glens Falls.
"The problem is people think if something is legally approved and sold, then it must be safe," Canadian doctor and pesticide specialist Libuse Gilka told the Post Star of Glens Falls. "They don't realize that those approving these things are only slowly learning about the side effects."
Suddenly, those who pointed out that malathion is harmful to humans and animals don't look like kooks anymore.
Overheated spray, in particular, can be deadly. Five workers were killed and another 2800 were sickened in Pakistan during a 1976 malaria-eradication program. The culprit? Isomalathion, created when the spray was improperly stored.
It's now apparent that the Fyfanon sprayed over the New York region may have been similarly cooked. The EPA announced in June that Fyfanon supplies in Suffolk, Middlesex, and Monmouth counties had become laced with the more potent neurotoxin.
Activists and investigators on behalf of the Florida lawsuit claim that when Fyfanon arrives from Denmark it's warehoused in Georgia and southern Texas in sweltering conditions. From those depots, it's distributed to places such as New York and Florida. Activists in New York City like the No Spray Coalition and the Environmental Law and Justice Project allege that it's also stored improperly when in the hands of local authorities.
What's more, amid the fanfare of 1999's West Nile virus scare and Giuliani's swift and overwhelming response, the city apparently violated a host of instructions that the EPA required Cheminova to provide. Users are not to spray Fyfanon over bodies of water, near foods, directly on people, or in places where people will return within 12 hours.
Those demands are incompatible with the comprehensive spraying of this marshy, island city, packed with more than 8 million people and dotted with outdoor cafes and backyard gardens. Suburban governments on Long Island and in northern New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut succumbed to the pressure to spray as well.
Mitchell Cohen, now a Green Party candidate for mayor, saw people getting gassed in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. "You could see it on you, and police cars were passing by," says Cohen. "It came without warning. You could see the helicopters coming over the tree line. They poured it on people. They poured it on dogs."
New York City has since switched from Fyfanon to products like Scourge and Anvil, made by Clarke Environmental Mosquito Management. The mayor has started touting the safety of these new pesticides, too, but an internal police memo obtained by the Voice last week details steps escorting officers should take to avoid contact with it. The memo includes a prohibition on following the spray trucks or opening the patrol car windows.
Even in its unaltered state, Malathion has attracted vehement critics inside the EPA. The agency's public approach, though, is a different story. In its June announcement about the cooked malathion, the federal government's pesticide industry regulator said the situation posed no threat to health. Dissenters within the EPA urge that such pronouncements be received with great skepticism.
"This place is disgraceful, it drives good scientists away," says Dwight Welch, an entomologist who's the executive vice president of the EPA research professionals union in Washington, D.C. "Some dedicated people stay on, but the agency is loaded with what I call biostitutes, the prostitutes of the biological sciences. Hacks who will do what they are told." Welch points to corruption rooted in "an incestuous relationship [between regulators and the regulated]; senior managers move on to nice fat jobs with industry when they retire."
Jay Feldman, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, says the EPA is too comfortable with the industry it's supposed to hawk over, and the "process is too open to influence."
"The EPA is not in a regulatory mode, it's in a negotiating mode," Feldman observes. "That means too often it compromises public safety in the name of efficient management. It doesn't like to subject itself to the threat of litigation when proposed actions are being considered."
Welch claims those opposing opinions have been suppressed or ignored. One problem is purely structural – the EPA won't see the things for which it's expressly not looking. "Some concerns fall outside EPA guidelines," Welch says. After exposure to malathion there were "behavior disturbances in lab animals, but EPA guidelines don't examine psychoses."
But psychoses are not a shocking result from a neurotoxin, or as EPA science advisor Herbert Needleman calls it more plainly, "brain poison." Fyfanon and similar products force nerves either to fry themselves by firing without pause, or to completely shut down.
The mosquito is less protected against malathion's nerve attack than humans and other mammals, but we too can succumb if hit with enough of the toxin. A victim of the most severe exposure will no longer be able to breathe because messages to the muscles to raise and lower the diaphragm will shut down, says one FBI chemist, who has studied the compound because it is a potential – though ineffective – terrorist tool.
Effects from milder contact are hard to pin down, because symptoms are so broad. Victims of spraying suffer the classic "DUMBBELS" maladies after organophosphate poisoning: diarrhea, urination, miosis (pupil constriction), bronchorrhea (excessive mucous), bradycardia (slowed and weakened heart rate), emesis (vomiting), lacrimation (watery eyes), and salivation. Those symptoms sound a lot like West Nile fever itself (ditto that for immune suppression), or even, as the FBI chemist suggests, fear. Such vagueness feeds the arguments of officials who say public complaints are the result of hypochondriac hysterics, and of activists who mutter about conspiracies when they note that none of New York's supposed West Nile victims – usually elderly people or people with already compromised immune systems – have been autopsied for public record.
Equally hard to pin down outside of a laboratory is the risk of cancer from malathion and its byproducts. We're living in such a wash of chemicals and other toxic exposures that anecdotal evidence of a cancer link is iffy at best.
One of the EPA's top in-house malathion experts, senior toxicologist Dr. Brian Dementi, has spent 10 years arguing from data provided by Cheminova itself and other companies that the pesticide is a probable carcinogen, a position contrary to the largely sanguine reports of his colleagues. As a result, he was bypassed when new malathion issues arose, and frozen out of meetings until his union intervened.
Needleman, who as an EPA Science Advisory Board member reviewed Dementi's reports when he was finally allowed to present them, notes that as doses of malathion were increased in rats, tumors grew in proportion. "I think malathion is a carcinogen. I think the evidence is pretty strong for this," Needleman says, who argues the chemical should be banned. In the case of West Nile, he says, "They were spraying enormous numbers of people to perhaps prevent a small number of people from getting this disease."
But his became a minority opinion at the EPA after a statistical adjustment ignored higher doses as unrealistic in human exposure, he recalls. That defeats the laboratory method, which is meant to speed up the process and to provide a basis for extrapolating downward. The jiggering of numbers in the EPA's cancer assessment of malathion "was not bad science," he growled. "It was not science at all."
Mosquitoes have become such an issue that a google.com search for the New York City Department of Health turns up the department's West Nile virus information section as the most popular site after the main page.
In addition to Green Party aspirant Cohen, two candidates for city office have made opposition to insecticide spraying a major plank of their platforms: Councilwoman Kathryn Freed, a candidate for public advocate, has called for a moratorium on spraying and the formation of a specialized board to weigh decisions on spraying; and Joyce Shepard, of Queens, has fashioned herself as champion of the anti-spray cause in her campaign for City Council.
As the West Nile virus spreads along the East Coast, the same malathion issues plaguing New York may come into play elsewhere. In some places, the chemical is also being used to fight pests like the boll weevil. Environmentalists say it will be years before we know the full effects of all this spraying. Already some of the dead birds found to be carrying West Nile have died not of the virus, but of pesticides. "If you're giving it to a large number of people," says Dr. Needleman, "even a small increase in risk ratio means a lot of suffering."