The high price of pest control

Since the discovery of the first Mediterranean fruit fly of the season in April in a citrus grove about 20 miles from downtown Orlando, state officials have vigilantly monitored the use of malathion -- the potentially hazardous pesticide traditionally relied upon to keep the bugs from infesting groves all across the state.

News reports have faithfully traced state eradication efforts, featuring aerial and ground spraying of malathion, in Manatee and Lake counties, sometimes upsetting homeowners caught in the mist.

But beyond the cloud of controversy following the state's running war on the tiny pests, everyone from the county's mosquito control manager to your friendly pest-control man to your favorite next-door neighbor is likely to be applying different concentrations of the potentially hazardous stuff in houses, on about 140 food crops, or on other plants and animals. And no one is really keeping track of the frequency or quantity of its application for this multitude of uses.

Commercial pest-control companies are licensed by the state. But there is no state office responsible for monitoring their use of hazardous chemicals such as malathion. "We have no idea how or what types are being used by commercial pest-control companies," says Phill Helseth, pest-control administrator for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "The state legislature never made reporting this a requirement. Nobody's ever asked for it."

Primarily, Helseth's office responds to consumer complaints about work by the 3,600 licensed pest-control companies which employ more than 30,000 workers spraying pesticides, including malathion, in Florida. Asked who might know how much malathion is being spread, Helseth suggested contacting the companies who produce the chemicals. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that officials acknowledge that home use -- and abuse -- of malathion, which is sold on garden-store shelves under a variety of names, is even harder to gauge.

Malathion is also the chemical of choice for government officials like Thomas Breaud, Orange County's mosquito-control manager. In 1997, 65,000 gallons of malathion were spread across Florida for this purpose alone. And with the reporting of two cases of malaria last year in West Palm Beach, Breaud and his counterparts across the state are carefully watching for any signs that the potentially fatal disease carried by mosquitoes may be taking hold in Florida. Malathion could be the weapon used to combat the malaria-carrying insects.

In the 1930s, millions of malaria cases were reported every year in the South. Then the World Health Organization invested millions of dollars attempting to eradicate from the world the anopheline mosquito -- the only species that carries the disease. And while Americans continued to bring back the disease from exotic vacations, reports of cases in people who hadn't traveled outside the U.S. dropped off drastically. But in the past decade, these types of cases have been reported in California, Texas, Michigan, New Jersey and New York -- as well as Florida.

"We're constantly monitoring the mosquito population in Florida," says Breaud, who works with county health officials to monitor incidence of potentially fatal diseases, such as malaria, carried by mosquitoes. "We get cases every year, especially along our borders." So far, Orange County has managed to remain malaria-free, officials say.

While watching carefully, Bill Toth, county spokesman for the Florida Department of Health, insists residents shouldn't be alarmed by the reappearance of malaria as close as West Palm Beach.

"Sporadic things might pop up -- yellow fever, malaria -- but we have a good enough system we think we can control it," Toth says.

In controlling the county's mosquitoes, Breaud's office uses a variety of techniques, but relies heavily on malathion. Last year, he directed the application of 2,400 gallons over 512,420 acres in Orange County -- more than twice the amount state officials report was sprayed during fiscal year 1995.

Breaud's office uses a wide variety of tactics to control mosquitoes. His technicians introduce mosquito-eating fish to county lakes, inspect homes for likely breeding grounds, even spread compounds that suspend immature mosquitoes in the larvae stage.

Still, he acknowledges malathion remains a key weapon. Noting that the pesticide has been used for 40 years in Florida, Breaud suggested the lack of reports of adverse effects attests to malathion's relative harmlessness.

Without fail, all county and state officials insist malathion can be used safely -- provided it is used in the small concentrations favored by county and state authorities.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, malathion is a toxic chemical. Ingested in a concentrated form, it could be fatal. Even at the low dosages used by mosquito-control and Medfly eradication officials, people are advised against skin contact.

"The health risks with malathion aren't strong," says Bill Toth, spokesman for the county health department. "A spray truck only uses one ounce for an entire acre; with these microdroplets, the risk is very small.

"In all our studies, no hard evidence suggests anything harmful when the chemical is used properly, but it does have other drawbacks," Toth says. For example, in lakes, malathion kills fish. Yet Toth insists drinking-water supplies are not at risk from malathion. "It mostly stays at the soil surface and is somewhat biodegradable," he says.

Responds David Polcyn, a biology professor at California State University, "That's not very reassuring when you know that the breakdown chemical is about 1,000 times more volatile than the original spray."

Others join Polcyn in his concern about malathion's potentially harmful effects.

Members of the Tampa-based Citizens for the Responsible Application of Malathion raised such a ruckus in the midst of last year's aerial spraying in Hillsborough County that state officials have introduced alternatives, such as the use of sterile flies to sidetrack the others' reproductive capabilities, aborting the potential for infestation. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has urged the state to temper its aerial-spraying policy, developing alternatives such as the sterile flies and an experimental red dye.

"To anyone that says malathion is safe, I'd ask, ‘Have you read all the literature, can you discount all the studies showing negative health effects?'" Polcyn says. "You can't, because they're there. It's easy to say there's no effects, but stand behind this [and] give us a print-out of your list of studies."

The pro-malathion side cites an even larger body of research downplaying the danger. Last year, Mary Jo, a biologist with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated there were 1,000 studies demonstrating the pesticide's safety when used in lower concentrations.

And so the debate goes on. Polcyn insists critics are at a disadvantage opposite the chemical and agribusiness companies backing its continued use for their own selfish reasons.

"They've never met a chemical they didn't like and they're threatened by something they don't know," he says.

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