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Feds eyeing malathion as possible carcinogen

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering classifying malathion, a pesticide sprayed throughout Queens last summer during the mosquito-borne West Nile virus outbreak, as a low-level carcinogen, authorities said.

The revelation was hailed by some spraying critics as proof city health officials overreacted to the outbreak in September that killed four Queens residents and sickened dozens.

A letter from a U.S. Department of Agriculture official revealed that the EPA was reviewing malathion as a possible carcinogen.

"What is shocking to the conscience is that municipalities would allow malathion to be applied when it is being considered for (that) classification," said Gladstone Jones, an environmental litigation lawyer from New Orleans whose firm has been investigating the city's use of malathion in preparation for a possible lawsuit.

City Health Department spokeswoman Sandra Mullin said as far as she knew the department was unaware of the EPA's malathion review, but she stressed that the city's spraying was done in strict adherence to existing EPA guidelines.

The flap over the EPA's malathion review stemmed from an environmental impact report being prepared by the USDA for fruit fly control.

In a letter obtained by Bay Terrace activist Joyce Shepard, the USDA report's senior project leader, Harold Smith, told a Virginia-based toxicologist final publication of the draft had been delayed until the EPA concluded its malathion review.

"Preliminary information indicates the EPA is considering changing the registration status of malathion because of studies that suggest that it could be a low-level human carcinogen," Smith wrote in the Feb. 3 letter.

The city sprayed the malathion-based Fyfanon ULV, a pesticide produced by a Denmark company called Cheminova, from helicopters in September to kill off the mosquito population that was spreading the West Nile virus.

Malathion has been used by states such as Florida, to combat exotic fruit fly invasions. It has been a controversial solution in Florida and New York City, among other states, because malathion is believed to have sickened chemically sensitive individuals.

City health officials have acknowledged that malathion may have sickened some residents, but maintained those illnesses were negligible in the face of the West Nile outbreak and there was no evidence of widespread pesticide poisoning.

The USDA has been preparing its environmental impact report on combating fruit flies, which includes the use of malathion as one of the pesticides under study.

An EPA source said the malathion review began in 1984 as part of a federally mandated reregistration study of hundreds of similar pesticides called organophosphates, designed to insure that older chemicals meet new safety standards.

The source confirmed the agency had conducted a rigorous re-evaluation of malathion but was not finished reviewing animal tests. The source also said if any pesticide producer received a report of an "adverse incident" involving a product, it must be reported to the EPA, which can then take action as needed.

Alan Van Wagner, Cheminova's technical manager, said malathion now is classified by the EPA as a "class D chemical," which means its possible role as a carcinogen is undetermined.

Van Wagner said some known carcinogens are on the market but used discreetly and many less potent pesticides with carcinogenic properties are in use.

He said carcinogens are usually classified only after test animals have been exposed to abnormal amounts of the chemical.

Van Wagner said he was not privy to Cheminova's studies on malathion, but he noted, "I would have to say since it has not been classified as a carcinogen previously, in our opinion it's not."

If malathion is found to be a low-level human carcinogen, Jones said New Yorkers might be able to claim they were exposed to a material that could affect their health and at a minimum should be sent to health care professionals for monitoring. His firm has sued Cheminova over the use of its malathion product in Florida, where some illnesses have been reported.

Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who received a copy of Smith's letter, has urged the mayor to consider alternatives to malathion as mosquito season approached.

City health officials have not specified what pesticides, if any, will be used in the future.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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