Although state and local officials have repeatedly assured the public that current levels of malathion spraying are safe, they also have cautioned Southland physicians that direct exposure to the pesticide might cause eye and throat irritation, chest tightness, headaches and nausea, it was disclosed Thursday.
Critics of aerial malathion spraying said the warning to doctors bolsters their claims that the state has adopted a cavalier attitude toward health issues in its battle to contain the Mediterranean fruit fly.
The warning to physicians was disclosed in the course of depositions taken in Garden Grove by Orange County homeless advocates suing the state over its failure to provide shelters during the spraying. Some homeless people have claimed they became ill after the spraying.
The warning to physicians was prepared by health department officials in Los Angeles and Orange counties, reviewed by state officials and mailed to thousands of local physicians. The “Dear Doctor” letters in the two counties assert that officials expect “no serious or long-term health effects” from malathion exposure.
But each letter acknowledges that moderate, airborne exposure can cause “direct irritant effects. . . . Persons directly sprayed with the pesticides, or breathing fairly concentrated vapors from sprayed surfaces, might experience eye and throat irritation or chest tightness. If exposure is prolonged, headache or nausea might develop.”
Gera Curry, spokeswoman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture, stood by the state’s assertions about malathion’s safety and said of the cautionary letters: “Doctors among themselves tend to be a great deal more conservative and think of worst-case scenarios.”
Added Orange County Health Officer L. Rex Ehling: “You have to consider your audience. We’re not concealing anything from the public, but on the other hand we don’t want to suggest symptoms to anyone. With the physicians, we were being a bit more technical in the event symptoms do occur. “
The comments by Curry and Ehling did not satisfy Robert Cohen, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County--the group that is taking the state to court in behalf of the homeless. He said of the letters to physicians: “This is outrageous. They’re telling the public one thing and physicians the other.”
Hit with growing protests, state agriculture officials have repeatedly asserted that the mixture of one-part malathion and three-parts bait used in the sprayings represents a safe, effective way of wiping out the pest.
“No Health Hazard,” declares one headline on a bright yellow notice that was distributed by the state to hundreds of thousands of residents in about 300 square miles of the Southland that have been sprayed recently.
In an accompanying “malathion fact sheet,” state officials tell the public: “If convenient, stay indoors at the moment of application in your area to avoid spotting of personal apparel.” There is no mention of health effects.
Telling doctors that nausea or other symptoms may develop, Cohen said, “is qualitatively different than telling people you don’t want to get your clothes spotted . . . If you’re a homeless person, getting your clothes spotted may not be a top priority, but getting sick would be.”
Meanwhile, a Sacramento Superior Court judge Thursday rejected for the second time a request by three Orange County cities to block the spraying. In refusing to halt Thursday night’s spraying in a 36-square-mile area around Garden Grove, Judge Anthony DeCristoforo Jr. said that he uses malathion liberally to rid his back yard of pests and that he would not second-guess state agriculture officials.
City Councilman Joel Wachs told about 250 concerned North Hollywood residents Thursday night that the Arts, Health and Humanities Committee, which he chairs, will recommend that the city file suit against the state to stop the spraying.
Times staff writers Ralph Frammolino in Sacramento and Tracey Kaplan in Los Angeles contributed to this story.
* MEDFLY SPRAYING MAP: B2