Mutant Malathion

How New York’s Mosquito-Spray Campaign Spawned a Deadly Neurotoxin

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.

Illustration by Lloyd Miller

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 pols 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 cafés 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.

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