ToxFAQsTM for Malathion
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This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about malathion. For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-800-232-4636. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
The general population is probably not exposed to malathion regularly. However, malathion is used to treat head lice on humans, to kill fleas on pets, and to kill insects in gardens. Exposure to malathion may also occur at farms where it has been sprayed on crops. Exposure to high amounts of malathion can cause difficulty breathing, chest tightness, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, blurred vision, sweating, headaches, dizziness, loss of consciousness, and possibly death. This chemical has been found in at least 21 of the 1,636 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is malathion?
Malathion is an insecticide that does not occur naturally. Pure malathion is a colorless liquid, and technical-grade malathion, which contains >90% malathion and impurities in a solvent, is a brownish-yellow liquid that smells like garlic. Malathion is used to kill insects on farm crops and in gardens, to treat lice on humans, and to treat fleas on pets. Malathion is also used to kill mosquitos and Mediterranean fruit flies (medflies) in large outdoor areas.
What happens to malathion when it enters the environment?
- Malathion enters the environment primarily through
spraying on farm crops.
- Malathion does not stick to soil and is broken down
rapidly by bacteria in the soil, so it does not usually
move from the soil to groundwater.
- In water, malathion is broken down by the action
of the water and bacteria in the water.
- In air, malathion is broken down by sunlight.
- Malathion is not expected to accumulate in the food
chain due to rapid break down in aquatic organisms.
How might I be exposed to malathion?
- Most people are not exposed to malathion in the
air they breathe or on things they touch, unless they
live next to areas being sprayed.
- Farm workers, chemical sprayers, and people who
work in factories that make malathion are most likely
to be exposed.
- People who use it around their homes and people
living in areas where malathion is sprayed to control
medflies or mosquitos may also be exposed.
- People who live near landfills where it has been
dumped may be exposed.
- Individuals may also be exposed by going into fields
too soon after spraying.
How can malathion affect my health?
Malathion interferes with the normal
way that the nerves and brain function. Exposure to
very high levels of malathion for a short period in
air, water, or food may cause difficulty breathing,
chest tightness, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, blurred
vision, sweating, headaches, dizziness, loss of consciousness,
and death. If persons who are exposed to high amounts
of malathion are rapidly given appropriate treatment,
there may be no long-term harmful effects. If people
are exposed to levels of malathion below those that
affect nerve function, few or no health problems seem
How likely is malathion to cause cancer?
There is no conclusive proof that
malathion causes cancer in humans, although some studies
have found increased incidence of some cancers in people
who are regularly exposed to pesticides, such as farmers
and pesticide applicators. Animal studies also fail
to provide conclusive evidence of carcinogenicity. The
International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has
determined that malathion is unclassifiable as to carcinogenicity
How can malathion affect children?
It is likely that health effects
seen in children exposed to high levels of malathion
will be similar to the effects seen in adults. It is
not known whether children are more sensitive to the
effects of malathion than adults. There is some indication
that young rats may be more sensitive than adults to
nervous system effects.
Birth defects have not been observed
in humans exposed to malathion, but developmental effects
have been seen in the offspring of animals that ingested
enough malathion while pregnant to cause health effects
in the mother. Animal studies have shown that malathion
can be transferred from a pregnant mother to the developing
fetus and from a nursing mother to the newborns through
the mother's milk.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to malathion?
- The general population is not likely to be exposed
to large amounts of malathion. However, exposure may
be reduced by staying away from fields that have been
recently sprayed, by wearing protective clothing when
applying malathion around the home or in gardens,
and by washing fruits and vegetables grown in gardens
treated with malathion before eating. In areas where
malathion is sprayed to control medflies or mosquitos,
families can reduce exposure by remaining inside during
spraying periods, and by washing their hands and clothes
if they come in contact with sprayed surfaces within
a few days of the spraying.
- Children should avoid playing in soils near uncontrolled
hazardous waste sites where malathion may have been
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been
exposed to malathion?
Malathion can be detected in your
blood and its breakdown products can be detected in
your urine, but only within a few days after your last
exposure. If exposure is known or suspected, a test
can be done that measures cholinesterase levels in your
blood. Low levels of cholinesterase may be a result
of malathion exposure or may be caused by factors other
than malathion. These tests are not usually available
at your doctor's office, but your doctor can send the
samples to a laboratory that can perform the tests.
None of these tests, however, can predict whether you
will experience any health effects.
Has the federal government made recommendations to
protect human health?
The EPA has established a level
of 0.1 milligrams of malathion per liter of drinking
water (0.1 mg/L) for lifetime exposure of adults as
a level that is not expected to cause effects that are
harmful to health.
The EPA allows a maximum of 0.1-135
parts (0.1-135 ppm) malathion per million parts of certain
types of food.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a limit of 15 milligrams of malathion per cubic meter of workplace air (15 mg/m3) for 8 hour shifts and 40 hour work weeks.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2003. Toxicological Profile for Malathion. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
If you have questions or concerns, please contact your community or state health or environmental quality department or:
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Office of Innovation and Analytics, Toxicology Section
4770 Buford Highway
Chamblee, GA 30341-3717
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO 888-232-6348 (TTY)
Email: Contact CDC-INFO
ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.