Californians Take Issue with the Pesticide Malathion, Which Comes in on Medfly Wings and a Sprayer

updated 04/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Dawn hadn't yet touched the verdant hills of Pasadena, Calif., when Police Lt Terry Blumenthal received word that six state helicopters, flying in formation, were bearing down on his community. Their payload: a 1,050-gallon dose of the controversial pesticide malathion, to be dumped on the city's houses, pools and gardens. Blumenthal climbed into his chopper and headed south to intercept the offending helicopters. "We have you flying in formation below 700 feet, in violation of ordinance No. 9.42.010," he said into his microphone as he spotted the choppers. "I have to ask you to cease and desist"

"Affirmative," came the brisk reply from the state pilot. "We acknowledge your transmission."

Yet the trail of white chemicals continued. "Are you going to keep on spraying?" Blumenthal asked in amazement "Correct" the pilot responded firmly.

That astonishing exchange was the latest flare-up of a mini-revolt brewing in Southern California. The battle is over the state's use of malathion, a pesticide used to control the dreaded Mediterranean fruit fly. After one of the pests was discovered last July near Dodger Stadium, state officials, fearing that the medfly might endanger California's $16.5 billion agricultural industry, ordered 383 heavily inhabited square miles of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties to be blanketed with sticky white pesticide-laced corn syrup. Eerily reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, more than 60 predawn helicopter missions have taken place in the past eight months.

Although malathion has been sprayed over several parts of the state for more than a decade, residents of Southern California fear that repeated aerial sprayings and additional contaminants in the mix may increase the risk of toxicity. Since August 10,000 complaints of nausea, dizziness, diarrhea and flu symptoms have been reported to antimalathion organizations. "If the spraying is safe, why are we being told to stay indoors and cover our cars?" asks State Assemblyman Tom Hayden, who, along with 18 (of 50) fellow legislators, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, has petitioned Gov. George Deukmejian to halt spraying pending further health studies. Demonstrations are taking place from Glendale to Garden Grove, joined by celebrities Ted Danson, Mariel Hemingway and John Candy.

"It's an election year," says State Health Services Chief Kenneth Kizer, who suggests that malathion opponents are stirring up "unfounded anxiety." That opinion is supported by UC Riverside toxicologist Carl Winter. "More is known about malathion than any other pesticide," he says. "It is about one-eighteenth as toxic as the flea-and-tick killer in pet collars. I'm confident spraying doesn't pose significant health threats."

Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Health certified malathion safe in 1980, although critics now assert that newly required additional studies of the pesticide have yet to be completed. Perhaps more disturbing, the author of the original 1980 report, a former California State health official named Marc A. Lappe, recently reported that his cautionary conclusions had been watered down. "Malathion can be quite dangerous to infants, the elderly and the infirm," he says. "The public has been ramrodded into accepting this without their basic right to a full airing."

As the program enters its ninth month, charges and countercharges continue to fly. Citing a 1985 National Toxicology Program study indicating that malathion causes liver and thyroid cancer in rats and mice, Pasadena oncologist H. Rex Greene says, "Only a minute amount of a carcinogenic substance is needed to induce cancer. Repeated sprayings increase the probability of complications later in life." Deukmejian has linked his political credibility to the issue. "Hundreds and hundreds of studies have been done," he says. "I know in my heart that what we're doing is not harmful to the people."

At the center of the controversy is a blue-eyed, orange-bodied insect, smaller than a housefly, which was first discovered in Southern California in 1975. Although the species eats more than 250 different kinds of fruits and vegetables, pregnant females are partial to soft-skinned fruits like nectarines, peaches and apricots. They lay their eggs inside the fruit, rendering the pulp into an unappetizing—and inedible—goop.

The medfly has resisted all efforts to control it, despite a $175 million containment campaign over the past 15 years. In addition to using malathion, millions of gamma-zapped sterile male flies are released whenever an infestation occurs. "Eradication efforts just haven't worked," says UC Davis entomologist and state medfly adviser James R. Carey. "We can knock the numbers down to a low level, but they're still there."

Angry California citizens have begun fighting toxification without representation. In February, city councils in L.A., Glendale, and Burbank sued state and L.A. county officials to force a halt to the spraying until further studies are completed. Spraying is scheduled to be stopped in May, but until then, state officials remain steadfast in their policy. Recently the FAA warned Pasadena police and other municipal officials that the city has no legal control of the airspace over its city. "We'll see about that," steamed Pasadena Mayor William E. Thomson. "We're in court over this matter, and we'll find out who's right."

—Susan Reed, Dan Knapp in Los Angeles

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