Mutant Malathion

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

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.

Illustration by Lloyd Miller

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."

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