An exhaustive state Department of Health Services study recommends that California reconsider its use of aerial malathion spraying as a weapon against fruity fly infestations, citing potential health hazards and unresolved scientific questions raised by the controversial eradication method.
The department's recommendation is contained in a 500-page report, scheduled to be released today, that relies heavily on the findings of a committee of doctors, scientists and public health officials convened last year at the height of Southern California's Medfly infestation.
The report affirms much of the department's previous position that malathion spraying poses no serious threat to the majority of residents. But, in a departure from previous assurances, it acknowledges that under certain circumstances some residents could suffer ill effects from malathion spraying.
"DHS believes a sub-population of potentially sensitive individuals, such as children, the aged, individuals with certain pre-existing diseases and the homeless . . . may be at risk of exhibiting some adverse health effects from aerial malathion bait applications," the report states.
Those adverse effects could include skin rashes, allergic responses and other ailments.
The department found no solid evidence linking malathion with cancer or birth defects.
But the department said that there are gaps in the scientific understanding of malathion and how it affects an urban population when sprayed from the air.
"Because of concerns set forth in this document, specifically the small margins of safety for certain groups in the population and the need to develop additional information suitable for evaluating exposures of urban populations to malathion, DHS recommends that the aerial application of malathion bait in urban areas . . . be reconsidered," the report says.
"DHS recognizes the public concerns related to the urban aerial applications of pesticides such as malathion to control economic pests," the report continues, "and urges the development and use of more selective pest control methods that are less potentially toxic, intrusive and alarming."
Opponents of malathion spraying cheered the report's findings, saying that the department's acknowledgement of some unresolved problems in aerial spraying could change the legal and political complexion of the malathion debate.
Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, who has been one of the leaders in the fight to stop malathion spraying, declared the report a "vindication" of the opposition's long battle against the pesticide.
"This is a dramatic turnaround," he said. "It's a big victory. It's what we've been saying all along, that they were spraying first and asking questions later, using us as human guinea pigs."
Roger Carrick, an attorney representing the city of Los Angeles in its suit to stop the California Department of Food and Agriculture from using malathion spraying in urban areas, said the report could help bolster the legal challenges, which have largely been unsuccessful in stopping spraying.
"I think it's devastating to the state's case," he said. "CDFA has maintained for 10 years, with the backing of health services, that spraying malathion is safe. Now DHS is calling on agriculture to reconsider."
Others who have opposed malathion spraying were less optimistic.
State Sen. Art Torres, who has been an outspoken opponent of malathion spraying for nearly a decade, said the report's recommendation that the state "reconsider" its use of aerial spraying could end up meaning nothing.
"They could reconsider and still decide to spray," he said. "That word gives the department maneuvering room, but no commitment to the public."
But Torres said he was encouraged that the report brought out many problems the public has long clamored about.
"It's pointing toward vindication," he said.
The state Department of Food and Agriculture, which handled the 536-square-mile spraying campaign against the Medfly last year, had no comment.