The city of El Cajon's star witness testified Thursday that, because "the jury is out" on whether malathion causes cancer, the state's aerial spraying program in El Cajon reflects "reckless irresponsibility" and should be suspended.
During nearly four hours of testimony, Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health in Chicago, outlined a range of ways in which malathion may affect human health--from chromosomal damage to nausea, blindness to miscarriages, and, possibly, cancer. Epstein accused the state of misleading El Cajon residents as to the relative safety of the spraying and said more research is needed to close what he called the malathion "data gap."
"To consider, let alone implement, large-scale aerial spraying when the carcinogenicity tests are questionable . . . in my mind flies in the face of all basic tenets of public health," said Epstein, whose 31-page resume--listing 275 published papers and past affiliations with Harvard Medical School and Case Western Reserve University--was admitted into evidence. "Based on some 30 years' experience both as a scientist and an adviser to decision-making bodies, I can only characterize this program as reckless irresponsibility."
As the fifth and final witness called by the city, which has sued the state to halt the aerial spraying program, Epstein provided a dramatic end to nearly two days of highly technical testimony. However, Municipal Judge J. Michael Bollman, sitting in Superior Court, has not yet ruled on the state's motion to exclude any testimony on malathion's effects on human health, so it is still possible that Epstein's remarks will be omitted from the record.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Charles W. Getz IV said that today he will call witnesses for the state who will prove that Epstein is "a lone voice out there crying in the wilderness."
The state has already completed the first of three scheduled aerial applications of the pesticide over a 16-square-mile area in an attempt to eradicate a suspected infestation of the Mexican fruit fly, or Mexfly. A second dose is scheduled for Monday.
Epstein compared such spraying of tiny droplets to creating a "toxic fog." He disputed the state's contention that the droplets are too large to be inhaled, saying, "The implication that the stuff just sits on the ground is highly misleading."
Far more dangerous than the malathion itself, Epstein said, is its toxic byproduct malaoxon, which he said is 25 to 40 times more toxic than malathion. He contended that malaoxon is present in large quantities after a spray, an assertion the state denies.
Epstein, a balding man in his 60s, compared the state's quest for complete Mexfly eradication to the search for the Holy Grail and then recited a laundry list of findings on malathion's flaws.
He noted a Japanese study, conducted in 1957, that he said indicated that aerial spraying of malathion and other organophosphates led to serious ophthalmological problems and sometimes blindness. Another American study seemed to indicate that malathion caused genetic damage in rodents, he said, and other experiments suggested that rats' learning ability was impaired.
The acute effects of malathion "poisoning" he illustrated with a local example. When 17 homeless people in Huntington Beach were doused with an aerial application, he said, 10 of them exhibited symptoms such as twitching, diarrhea, nausea, excessive sweating and salivation and anorexia.
Getz later challenged Epstein on that point, saying no physicians in Huntington Beach had reported pesticide poisoning cases, as they are required by the state to do in they treat such a case.
Epstein retorted: "It is my general understanding that homeless people don't report to their doctors as often as you and I might."
On perhaps the most troubling question--whether or not malathion is a carcinogen--Epstein said there is "substantive but not unequivocal" evidence that suggests it may cause some forms of cancer. He noted that two studies by the National Cancer Institute that indicated higher incidence of thyroid and liver cancer in rodents are generally believed to be so flawed that they must be repeated.
"To be conservative, the jury is out on carcinogenicity of malathion," he said. In the interim, however, before retesting takes place, he said, "it is unthinkable that one would expose a large population to any chemical in the absence of information" on its effects.
Throughout the day, Epstein clashed frequently with Getz, accusing the state's deputy of misquoting his prior testimony. When Getz implied that the titles of some of Epstein's publications are more philosophical and political than scientific, Epstein shot back: "The CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture) is saying, 'This stuff is harmless. You don't have to worry.' We're not dealing with philosophical questions. We're dealing with irresponsible public health policy."
Later, hoping to lure Epstein into criticizing the soft drink that the judge had been drinking all day, Getz presented a can of Diet Pepsi and asked Epstein if those who drink it are risking their health.
Epstein replied: "I'm not sure what's in Diet Pepsi. I never drink the stuff." Unbeknown to Getz, the judge had previously joked with Epstein on the same subject, leaning toward him as he poured a glass and inquiring, "This isn't a carcinogen, is it?"
Earlier, El Cajon's deputy city attorney, Stephen M. Eckis, had called Lester Ehler, a professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, to the stand. Ehler testified that malathion kills many beneficial insects in addition to the targeted pest.