Of lice and libel

You might say it's a real head-scratcher: Why would the United States ban the use of a highly toxic pesticide on crops and animals yet allow the same substance to be rubbed into the scalps of children?

It's a question that has no good answer, say the folks at Ann Arbor's Ecology Center and others. But, as the Ecology Center found recently when it was hit with a federal lawsuit by the U.S. pharmaceutical company that sells lindane, pointing out the dangers of the substance can be risky business.

Lindane lotion and shampoo, manufactured by the Illinois company Morton Grove Pharmaceuticals, is used to treat head lice, pubic lice and scabies. The chemical is a chlorinated pesticide similar to DDT. Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — which began phasing out use of the substance in the early 1990s — banned any use of lindane as a pesticide. Use on animals had previously been prohibited. However, the federal Food and Drug Administration is continuing to allow the product to be used as a medicine for humans.

"Lindane has been deemed safe and effective when used according to labeling," says FDA spokeswoman Kymberly Rawlings. "The FDA doesn't have plans to take any further actions" regarding the substance.

Activists at the Ecology Center are among those who say that's a grave mistake.

"It makes no sense that lindane can't be used on pets or plants or persons serving in the military, but it can still be used on children," said Mike Garfield, director of the Ecology Center, in a prepared statement.

But that claim is no different than what any number of other environmental and health care professionals are saying.

As Stephenie Hendricks of the Pesticide Action Network in California says, "If Morton Grove wanted to silence all the people in the world who want to ban lindane for pharmaceutical use, they would be filing thousands of lawsuits."

So why would Morton Grove sic its lawyers on the Ann Arbor environmental group in particular?

A call to the attorney representing the company wasn't returned. Also named in the suit are Dr. Jon Fliegel, a pediatrician at Ypsilanti's Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital, and Dr. William B. Weil, a pediatrician and professor emeritus at Michigan State University's Department of Pediatrics and Human Development. Ecology Center employee Lauren Zajac is also named.

They're being accused by the company of "disseminating false, misleading, and libelous statements about the safety profile and effectiveness of Lindane. ..."

Heavily footnoted reports produced by the Ecology Center (and reviewed by Drs. Fliegel, Weil and the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics) identify lindane as being "acutely toxic to the nervous system" and capable of causing "seizures, numbness, motor restlessness, anxiety, tremors, cramps and unconsciousness." It is also considered a "possible" carcinogen, the center reported.

In an attempt to limit the possibility of potentially harmful side effects, the FDA in 2003 significantly reduced the amount of lindane that can be prescribed in a single dose. It is also what's considered a second-line treatment, meaning it's used when the medication first used fails.

According to environmentalists, it's been completely banned in more than 50 countries.

Supporters of the Ecology Center suggest the lawsuit is an attempt to intimidate and harass the group because it has come out in vocal support of state House Bill 5574.

"My gut feeling is they're trying to take resources away from the Ecology Center's efforts to have lindane banned in Michigan," says Hendricks.

Introduced in the state Legislature this year, that bill is an attempt to force the phase out of the remaining pharmaceutical uses of lindane in Michigan. A similar ban was enacted by the California Legislature about four years ago.

For their part, the Ecology Center's leaders say they won't be cowed.

"We are going to continue to communicate to the Michigan Legislature the well-documented and peer-reviewed scientific findings which demonstrate the hazards of this chemical, regardless of Morton Grove's attempt to silence us," Garfield said.

Controversy over the pesticide is not new. It is claimed in the lawsuit that petitions to ban its use as a medication "have repeatedly been denied and determined to be without merit."

That claim would probably come as a surprise to the California Legislature, which banned the pharmaceutical use of lindane in 2000. The California prohibition came about because of concern over contamination of water supplies in the state.

Dr. Mark Miller — director of the Pediatric Environmental health Specialty Unit at the University of California, San Francisco — tells Metro Times that even small amounts of the substance could pollute waterways. Miller studied the effects of lindane as part of an environmental task force established as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Miller says that, while the California Legislature considered the issue, it heard testimony that one treatment of lindane medication, when washed down the drain, polluted an estimated 6 million gallons of water.

The Ecology Center's echoing of that information is one of the allegedly false statements the Ecology Center is accused of disseminating.

Miller says he stopped prescribing medication containing lindane in the late 1980s, turning instead to treatments that were less risky. According to the FDA, lindane "should be used with extreme caution" in cases involving children and in individuals weighing less than 110 pounds.

That's particularly pertinent because children tend to be disproportionately afflicted by head lice, says Miller.

The Ecology Center interpreted the warning to mean that the "FDA recommends not using lindane to treat individuals weighing less than 110 pounds ..." That's another of the alleged false statements.

Morton Grove also contends in its lawsuit that the Ecology Center made a false statement when it claimed lindane isn't manufactured in this country. However, elsewhere in the same suit the company states that the active ingredient in its lotion and shampoo, lindane, is in fact imported.

The manufacturing of lindane is an important issue, says Miller, because for every pound of lindane that's produced, several pounds of equally toxic waste sludge are also generated, and there's no way to adequately treat or dispose of that waste.

Stephanie Hendricks of the California-based Pesticide Action Network says it's uncertain exactly where lindane is manufactured. India is one possible source, China another. Wherever it's being made, though, it's causing a problem for indigenous people living in the Arctic regions of North America.

Because of global air and water patterns, the substance is showing up in that part of the world.

"We see that lindane is extremely toxic," says Pamela Miller, executive director of the Anchorage-based group Alaska Community Action on Toxics. "It should have been phased out along with DDT [in the 1970s]. We're very concerned the FDA would allow its continued use."

As San Francisco's Dr. Mark Miller explains, when people apply lindane lotion or shampoo, it is washed off after about 10 minutes, flowing down the drain and into lakes, rivers and oceans. It stays in the environment for a long time, and goes long distances so that people who have no connection to it, people in the Arctic who you think live in a pristine environment, are some of the most exposed people in the world."

So why continue using something so potentially dangerous when there are alternatives Miller says the mainstream medical establishment considers to be more effective, safer and cheaper?

From the point of view of Ann Arbor's Ecology Center, there is no reason. But now it's being forced to expend energy and resources to defend claims many others in the environmental and medical communities freely share.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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