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Daily News Archive
From December 21, 2000

L.A. County Health Department Considers Recommending Malathion for Head Lice

Jack Dillenberg, D.D.S., M.P.H. and an Area Health Officer of the Los Angeles County Health Department is considering to recommend the organophosphate pesticide malathion for use on Los Angeles County children for head lice. Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP strongly urges against this endorsement of malathion, as effective alternatives to this toxic chemical exist, and requests others to send comments to the department.

Children are more vulnerable and susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticides. In its ground breaking report, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children (1993), the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, confirmed that, "infants and children differ both qualitatively and qualitatively from adults in their exposure to pesticide[s]." Children are more sensitive to pesticide because of their physiology and behavior. Children have developing organ systems that are more vulnerable and less able to detoxify toxic chemicals. Low levels of pesticide exposure can adversely effect a child's neurological, immune and endocrine system.

Malathion has been shown in animal testing and from use experience to affect not only the central nervous system, but the immune system, adrenal glands, liver and blood as well. Malathion has shown to be mutagenic in humans and animals. It has also been associated with birth defects in domestic and laboratory animals.

In a 1976 U.S. Army study, it was found that the avoidance behavior of rats was significantly impaired at a dose which did not impair blood or brain acetylcholine esterase activity. In other words, malathion was found to cause behavioral changes at levels at which the standard hospital test for organophosphate poisoning would be negative. EPA's Pesticide Incident Monitoring System reported 962 incidents from 1960-1980, and in California, malathion was the third most common cause of pesticide illness from 1981 to 1985.

There is ongoing controversy about whether or not malathion is or is not a carcinogen. A 1992 study published in Cancer Research linked the use of malathion by Iowa and Minnesota farmers to an increased risk of non Hodgkin's lymphoma. Another study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found similar increased risks in Nebraska farmers using malathion. Just over a week before the EPA released its preliminary risk assessment for malathion, the agency was poised to classify the organophosphate pesticide as a suspected carcinogen, according to Reuters newswire on May 10, 2000. Reuters' EPA source, speaking on condition of anonymity, revealed, "The EPA scientists' risk assessment finds that malathion is a suspected carcinogen. The risks are fairly small, but acceptable compared to other substances." Yet, the Federal Register the following day claimed "insufficient evidence."

The Northwest Coalition for Alternative to Pesticides (NCAP) states that the toxicity of malathion is compounded by its metabolites and contaminants. Malaoxon, a metabolite produced by the oxidation of malathion in mammals, insects, plants, and in sunlight is the primary source of malathion's toxicity and is 40 times more acutely toxic than malathion. NCAP also states that over eleven chemical contaminants and analogues created in the production process have been found in technical malathion.

Alternatives to malathion for lice include enzyme treatments (Not Nice to Lice, www.safe2use.com and Lice-B-Gone, www.licebgone.com). Another plant derived product is Planet Solutions (www.planetsolutions.org). Using a nit comb and coconut oil can also be effective. For more information, see Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP's malathion chemwatch fact sheet or contact Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP for a information on controlling head lice without toxic chemicals.

Send comments to Dillenberg at jdillenberg@dhs.co.la.ca.us, 310-315-3223 phone, 310-315-4554 fax and the Los Angeles County Health Department Director, James Haughton, M.D., M.P.H. at jhaughton@dhs.co.la.ca.us, 213-250-8685 phone, 213-481-9583 fax.