Pesticides are not Safe

Article by Mitchel Cohen
printed in New Living Magazine, Oct. 2000.

The Giuliani administration has bombarded New York City with toxic pesticides since last September. And now there are few lobsters left in the Long Island Sound or crabs in the Great South Bay, and fish kills by the thousands in Staten Island’s lakes. Tens of thousands of birds are dead that had NOT tested positive for West Nile Virus — what did they die from? Many bees are dead as well, with shuddering consequences for cross-pollination and the ecosystem.

Trucks have now sprayed every block in the city with Scourge (Resmethrin) and Anvil (Sumithrin), factory-made pyrethroids mixed with suspected carcinogen Piperonyl Butoxide. Helicopters sprayed Fyfanon ULV (Malathion, 96.5 percent concentrated) and pyrethroids.

Hundreds, if not thousands of people have been sickened by the pesticides. New test tube studies by Dr. Mary Wolf and others at Mt. Sinai link Sumithrin (with its sweet yet somewhat acrid metallic taste that lodges in the back of the throat) to the proliferation of breast cancer cells in women and low sperm counts in men.

Malathion and pyrethroids work in different ways, but they are equally toxic. Malathion belongs to a class of chemicals, organophosphates, developed in World War Two as nerve gas. It is a cholinesterase inhibitor, mutagenic, highly toxic to vertebrates, a possible carcinogen, and implicated in vision loss. It causes myriad negative health effects, damage to nontarget organisms such as bees, butterflies and fish, and damage to DNA in reproductive cells.

Malathion kills insects and other animals, including humans, through its effect on the nervous system. It inhibits an enzyme, acetylcholinesterase (AChE), that breaks down acetylcholine, a chemical essential in transmitting nerve impulses across junctions between nerves. Without functioning AChE, acetylcholine accumulates, producing rapid twitching of voluntary muscles, incoordination, convulsions, paralysis, and ultimately death. Effects of AChE inhibition on nerve cells in the brain are particularly important. Malathion also inhibits critical liver enzymes.

Malathion was first registered for use in the United States in 1956; 15 million pounds of active ingredients are used annually. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that 20,000 to 100,000 workers are occupationally exposed to malathion in the U.S. annually. Grain elevator workers in Louisiana were sickened after being exposed to grain dust contaminated with 0.17 to 32 parts per million (ppm) of malathion. Spraying in Tampa left 200 people hospitalized with dizziness, nausea and flu-like symptoms. Office workers have complained of headaches and nausea after working in a room adjacent to a pesticide storage shed. Malathion was still evaporating from a wall where a pesticide spill had occurred five years earlier.

Malathion also causes lowered sperm counts. One recent study shows that a SINGLE DOSE of malathion damaged sperm cells in mice. In another study, a single dose of malathion was sufficient to impair frogs’ resistance to infection. New York City has been sprayed with Malathion REPEATEDLY, with reckless disregard for longterm consequences.

The labels of malathion and the pyrethroids warn against spraying near water. The chemicals are toxic to aquatic life. Yet, “ultra-low volume” formulations fog whole neighborhoods with extremely fine, undiluted droplets which hang in the air and drift into rivers and lakes. A homeowner adjacent to a school in Arizona sprayed his garden with malathion which drifted into the school ventilation system, causing 300 children to be hospitalized.

Giuliani claims that malathion breaks down after a few days, and is therefore “safe”. What he does not say is what it breaks down into: Malaoxon, which increases the chemical’s toxicity by a factor of 40; Iso-Malathion, which is also very dangerous; and over 11 chemical contaminants and analogues. These compounds inhibit not only AChE, but other enzymatic systems in the liver that would ordinarily detoxify contaminants. Malathion is anything but “safe”.

Symptoms of acute organophosphate poisoning in humans include headaches, nausea, dizziness, salivation, tearing, urination, diarrhea, convulsions, muscle weakness, incoordination, abdominal cramps, blurred vision and pupil constriction, slowed heart beat, respiratory depression, paralysis, and coma. Other acute effects of malathion exposure include skeletal muscle damage (after inhalation) and abnormal and uncontrollable eye movement. The EPA continues to investigate malathion as a potential human carcinogen.

The No Spray Coalition, Disabled in Action, Save Organic Standards-NY, and the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, along with attorneys Joel Kupferman (NY Law and Environmental Justice Project) and Karl Coplan (PACE Environmental Law Clinic, directed by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.), have filed suit in Federal Court to stop the spraying. Although Judge
Martin has refused to grant a permanent injunction, he has rejected the City’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which continues under the Clean Water Act.

Dramatic video footage submitted to the Court documents the subcontractor, Clarke Industry’s indiscriminate spraying of people on the street, vegetable stands, pregnant women, and children.

The No Spray Coalition is in dire need of funds to pursue the lawsuit and continue its work. Checks may be written to No Spray Coalition and mailed to PO Box 334, Peck SlipStation, NYC 10272. Fact sheets are available, as are flyers for distribution. The No-Spray hotline (updated daily) is: (718) 670-7110; website: No Spray email lists: and (now – hotline no longer operational: 2015)

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