22. MALATHION: DEATH FROM THE SKIES

Hundreds of times over the past 10 years, squadrons of helicopters have taken to the skies over Southern California spraying a deadly nerve agent originally developed by German scientists during World War II. The ostensible target of this aerial assault is the dreaded Mediterranean fruit fly. In fact, the primary victims of the "Medfly War" have been the citizens of California who must not only foot the bill for this chemical crusade, but must suffer its toxic consequences as well.

Now, quietly and without fanfare, the United States government has taken the first halting steps in a plan that could expand this poison project nation wide. In the name of protecting American agribusiness, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has embarked on a mission aimed at "eradicat[ing] periodic infestations of the Mediterranean fruit fly from the United States mainland."

Before rallying around this crusade, the nation should know what the cost has already been to Californians and what chance there is of success. The economic cost alone is enormous. The Medfly was originally introduced to the continental United States in 1929. Since that time, by the USDA's own estimates, roughly $270 million has been spent on Medfly eradication, including aerial spraying of malathion in California, Florida, and Texas. Also, by official estimates, California has poured over $30 million into the poison project just since the most recent Medfly infestation was discovered in August 1989.

It is not just economic costs that are high. In November 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported "questionable" findings in previous studies of malathion and ordered more long term investigations into the potential health hazards of the pesticide. Although these tests will not be completed for several more years, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) continues to tout the pesticide's virtues, claiming it is "perfectly safe." Nonetheless, there is increasing evidence of illness from spraying including a report by a home birthing clinic of a "dramatic increase" in both miscarriages and intrauterine growth retardation immediately after being sprayed; a report of a Little League game that was sprayed, resulting in 43 percent of the participants and on-lookers falling ill; and the case of Nancy Sanchez's young son Nicholas. On each of the first three occasions that her home had been sprayed, Nicholas had fallen ill with flu-like symptoms. After the fourth exposure, he developed an acute sinus infection accompanied by profuse nasal bleeding. Shortly thereafter, paralysis set in and he was sent to the hospital. Following a spinal tap, Nicholas recovered use of his legs but could not get around without the aid of a walker or crutches. An examination by Dr. Alfredo Sadun, professor of neuro-surgery and ophthalmology at the USC School of Medicine, determined that Nicholas suffered "classic symptoms of malathion poisoning."

Finally, it appears that the eradication program doesn't work in any event. Dr. James R. Carey, an entomologist at UC Davis, points out there is "indisputable evidence that the Medfly has survived every eradication program since at least 1980 and can therefore be considered endemic" in California.

SSU STUDENT RESEARCHER: DEVIN CARSWELL

SOURCES: RANDOM LENGTHS, PO Box 731, San Pedro, CA 90733, DATE: 3/1/90
TITLE: "Malathion: Death From the Skies"
CO-AUTHORS: DAVE ARMSTRONG and ERIK ANDERSON
DATE: 9/27/90
TITLE: "War of the Flies"
AUTHOR: DAVE ARMSTRONG

COMMENTS: Author Dave Armstrong charges that mainstream media coverage of the potential dangers of aerial spraying of pesticides over heavily populated urban areas was wholly inadequate. "While the Los Angeles Times treated official claims of the pesticide's alleged safety with great deference, it completely ignored the warnings of independent researchers and the long list of documented poisonings. The full extent of network TV coverage of the subject consisted of one "Nightline" episode and a 20-minute segment on "60 Minutes." The "Nightline" piece, which featured a `debate' between two state officials, focused entirely on the question of whether or not the spraying should proceed before the public had been properly convinced of the pesticide's `safety.' The "60 Minutes" story dealt with the `controversy' that has developed over the spraying program, but offered no insight into the legitimate concerns underlying the public's fears. Mainstream newsweekly coverage was virtually nonexistent. ... and no other publication in the country has exposed the USDA's plans to expand this program nationwide." Armstrong believes that the limited coverage Malathion has received "works to the benefit of three principal groups - the agriculture industry, chemical companies, and politicians. Malathion manufacturers are make a fortune selling the pesticide to the state at taxpayers' expense. Growers thereby avoided the cost of protecting their own industry. For perpetuating this fraud, politicians are duly rewarded through campaign contributions from growers and manufacturers." Noting that California's Governor, Pete Wilson, is heavily subsidized by the chemical industry, Armstrong suggests that even "cursory media coverage would quickly expose this cozy relationship." He concludes that there is a strong correlation between the incidents of Malathion spraying and elections with spraying halted during heavy campaign periods prior to elections and started up again following election day.