The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday issued a subpoena to force a county health official to produce all documents pertaining to urine samples taken in May from 70 people in Los Angeles and Orange counties who said they became ill immediately after their neighborhoods were sprayed with the pesticide malathion.
Results of those tests are due in a month and are expected to provide the first precise measurements of how much malathion has been absorbed by people in the spray zones, state and county health officials said.
The issue of the urine tests arose Tuesday when Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs made a motion to try to compel Dr. Paul Papanek, chief of the county Health Department’s toxics epidemiology program, to hand over documents about the study, as well as all “vital information regarding the health effects of malathion spraying.”
Papanek called Wachs “irresponsibly ignorant” and vehemently denied that his office has withheld any information. He said there is no need for a subpoena to read the background documents, which he said have been available for any member of the council to read.
The council voted 11 to 1 to issue the subpoena, but it also decided to give Papanek a final opportunity to turn over the information voluntarily--and under oath--before enforcing the subpoena. Wachs wants Papanek to appear, with the documents, before the council’s Arts, Health and Humanities Committee, which is conducting its own study of the effects of malathion spraying.
Wachs alleged that Papanek has refused to reveal information about the study, believed to be the first--and only--urine testing done during the recent campaign to battle the Mediterranean fruit fly with regular doses of malathion.
Though the campaign has virtually ended--the last spraying in Los Angeles County took place July 23--there is continued concern among some residents and government officials over the health effects of repeated exposure to the pesticide. Wachs said that more than 2 million pounds of malathion-laced bait has been sprayed over Southern California since January.
Papanek said the 70 residents who submitted urine samples were selected from more than 1,800 who have called health authorities to complain about symptoms ranging from headaches to rashes that they say cropped up within hours of the spraying.
He said public health nurses were sent to collect the samples, which were frozen and shipped to the California Department of Health Service’s Hazardous Materials Laboratory in Berkeley.
A state research scientist at the laboratory said a “lack of resources” kept health officials from taking more samples.
The samples were taken in May and some city officials have questioned why no results have been released 90 days later.
“We’ve been trying to get this information for the longest time but we can’t get it voluntarily,” Wachs said in an interview. “There are a lot of questions to ask about this: Who did they sample? How did they do it? When did they do it?”
Health officials involved in testing the urine samples said the delay was unavoidable. Before analyzing the samples, research scientists had to invent a method of detecting evidence of malathion exposure in human urine.
“We’ve done this before,” said William Draper, a research scientist at the lab. “That is, we’ve taken samples and not known what the heck we were going to do with them.”
In an interview, Papanek said the urine testing is being done to support the state’s contention that the amount of malathion absorbed by the body after spraying does not pose a health threat.