How are pesticides, particularly malathion, dangerous?

How are pesticides, particularly malathion, dangerous?

—Mary J. Russell, Fort Peck, MT

Organophosphate pesticides (OPs), which include the widely used insecticide malathion, are chemically related to nerve gases developed during World War II. For decades, scientists have been debating whether such pesticides cause birth defects, cancers and other health problems. Studies have shown links between regular exposure to malathion and various human maladies, including non-Hodgkins lymphoma, childhood leukemia, anemia, chromosome damage, and weakened immune systems. Meanwhile, aerial sprayings have been known to cause allergic reactions or flu-like symptoms for people inadvertently exposed.

Malathion was developed by the Swiss chemical giant Ciba-Geigy back in the 1950s as an agricultural crop insecticide and for pest control in homes and gardens. Today, more than 15 million pounds are applied annually in the U.S., according to the Pesticide Action Network. While such OPs are used to control crop-damaging insects, they kill beneficial bugs as well. OPs are found in hardware stores under names like Dursban, Diazinon, Sevin Dust and Baygon. They”re also widely used by exterminators.

Malathion and other pesticides are especially dangerous to children, who are more vulnerable to neurotoxins than adults, notes Kert Davies, pesticide specialist for the Environmental Working Group. “We recommend avoiding the use of any organophosphates in the home or garden,” he says.

To protect your family from pesticide residues on foods, eat organic food as much as possible. If organic offerings have not yet made it into your supermarket, the online informational resource Local Harvest provides a national online directory to help you find organic stores and farmers” markets near you.

To control lawn and garden pests, use the least-toxic method you can find, and pull weeds the old-fashioned way: by hand. The organization Beyond Pesticides maintains an online searchable database, called “Safety Source for Pest Management,” for locating pest management companies around the U.S. that use non-toxic and least-toxic methods. Also, The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides has several informative fact sheets on pesticide-free solutions to various types of pest problems.

If your kids” schools are not using least-toxic pest management methods, lobby them to start immediately. Beyond Pesticides” “Safer Schools” report provides online case studies of hundreds of schools across the country that have controlled pest issues successfully without exposing students to pesticides.

While malathion and other OPs undoubtedly can wreak havoc on human health, its producers, many scientists, and even some environmentalists believe the problems pesticides solve—that is, the curbing of infestation outbreaks—outweigh the risks of using them. But regardless, taking precautions against unnecessary exposure is our best hope for preventing ill effects..CONTACTS: Environmental Working Group, (202)667-6982,; Pesticide Action Network North America, (415) 981-1771,; Local Harvest,; Beyond Pesticides,; Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides,