Journal of Emergencies, Trauma, and Shock
Home About us Editors Ahead of Print Current Issue Archives Search Instructions Subscribe Advertise Login 
Users online:4697   Print this pageEmail this pageSmall font sizeDefault font sizeIncrease font size   

ORIGINAL ARTICLE Table of Contents   
Year : 2008  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 70-73
Dermal absorption of a dilute aqueous solution of malathion

Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, Center for Environmental/Occupational Risk Analysis and Management, College of Public Health, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida 33612, USA

Click here for correspondence address and email


Malathion is an organophosphate pesticide commonly used on field crops, fruit trees, livestock, agriculture, and for mosquito and medfly control. Aerial applications can result in solubilized malathion in swimming pools and other recreational waters that may come into contact with human skin. To evaluate the human skin absorption of malathion for the assessment of risk associated with human exposures to aqueous solutions, human volunteers were selected and exposed to aqueous solutions of malathion. Participants submerged their arms and hands in twenty liters of dilute malathion solution in either a stagnant or stirred state. The "disappearance method" was applied by measuring malathion concentrations in the water before and after human exposure for various periods of time. No measurable skin absorption was detected in 42% of the participants; the remaining 58% of participants measured minimal absorbed doses of malathion. Analyzing these results through the Hazard Index model for recreational swimmer and bather exposure levels typically measured in contaminated swimming pools and surface waters after bait application indicated that these exposures are an order of magnitude less than a minimal dose known to result in a measurable change in acetylcholinesterase activity. It is concluded that exposure to aqueous malathion in recreational waters following aerial bait applications is not appreciably absorbed, does not result in an effective dose, and therefore is not a public health hazard.

Keywords: Dermal absorption, malaoxon, malathion, organophosphates, pesticides

How to cite this article:
Scharf JE, Johnson GT, Harbison SC, McCluskey JD, Harbison RD. Dermal absorption of a dilute aqueous solution of malathion. J Emerg Trauma Shock 2008;1:70-3

How to cite this URL:
Scharf JE, Johnson GT, Harbison SC, McCluskey JD, Harbison RD. Dermal absorption of a dilute aqueous solution of malathion. J Emerg Trauma Shock [serial online] 2008 [cited 2022 Sep 29];1:70-3. Available from:

   Introduction Top

Malathion exhibits low mammalian toxicity despite having strong insecticidal properties. Malathion itself has little or no anticholinesterase activity, but as in many other organophosphates, it is bioactivated by mono-oxygenases to produce the potent anticholinesterase malaoxon. After conversion of malathion to its oxygen analog, malaoxon, the active site of acetylcholinesterase (AChE) is phosphorylated, and thereby inhibited by dimethyl or methyl phosphate. Inactivation of AChE causes acetylcholine to accumulate at the neuroreceptor transmission site, resulting in massive overstimulation of the cholinergic system. In humans, malathion and malaoxon are rapidly detoxified by carboxylesterase; the deficient carboxylesterase detoxification pathway in insects is the basis of malathion's insecticidal action. [1]

Most exposures to malathion are through dermal contact. Skin absorption can occur when dermal contact is made during handling and application of the pesticide, when contact is made with chemical residues on plants, fruits, and foliage, in soil, and in dust particles after spraying. A potential non-occupational exposure, however, is from aerial pesticide applications that result in solubilized malathion in swimming pools and other recreational waters humans may come into contact with. [2]

The transference of aerial malathion from the air into a one meter deep body of water typically yields a 22 ppb dilute aqueous solution. Certain areas sprayed at regular intervals, may experience concentration peaks and lulls. As a result, large fluctuations in concentration are known to have occurred in "Medfly hot zones", DC-3 flight pattern overlapping zones, and bodies of water subject to storm-water runoff. Peak concentrations have been found in swimming pools of up to 90 ppb. [2],[3]

Malathion, when dissolved in bodies of water, is readily oxidized to malaoxon by a variety of mild oxidizing compounds. It is generally recognized that malathion is readily oxidized to malaoxon by swimming pool chlorine concentrations. For example, malaoxon has greatest persistence when pool water is acidic, and can be stable in oxygen saturated water at acidic pH for up to two weeks. Sunlight shortens malathion and malaoxon half-lives in pools to 3 days. Current data suggest that little accumulation of malathion or malaoxon in swimming pools occurs; however it does indicate that low levels can persist for more than a week. [4],[5],[6]

The balance of malathion and malaoxon dose in humans may be influenced by concomitant exposure to exogenous malaoxon. Swimmers may be exposed to malaoxon in addition to malathion as the aerial bait lands in the swimming pool and is oxidized by chlorine to this much more potent active metabolite, which inhibits AChE activity approximately 68 times more effectively than malathion. However, due to differences in the polarity and lipid solubility of malaoxon, the potential for dermal absorption is far less than that of malathion. Despite this lower potential for absorption, exogenous malaoxon absorption should be considered when evaluating the possible health risks from contaminated recreational waters. [7],[8],[9],[10],[11]

Dermal uptake of aromatic chemicals from aqueous solutions can be evaluated using the "disappearance method". This method requires both hands of each subject to be immersed for two hours in a one-liter beaker, and then a comparison is made between the pre- and post-exposure concentrations of the solution. The best available approach for estimating dermal exposure to malathion in a swimming pool is the model utilized for chloroform (CF) and trichloroethylene (TCE) for baths and showers. This type model is specific for dilute aqueous solutions of lipophilic, organic contaminants. [12],[13],[14],[15]

By measuring the dermal absorption of malathion concentrations in an aqueous solution, this investigation examines the dermal absorption rate of malathion and the potential health impact of anticholinesterase activity in recreational swimmers exposed to waters contaminated by aerial malathion applications. The results of this study can be applied to the risk assessment of exposure to malathion contaminated surface waters.

   Materials and Methods Top

Malathion exposure

Twenty volunteers (2 female, 18 male) aged 25-50 years, with weights ranging from 70-100 kg were subjected to limited dermal exposure of hands and forearms of dilute aqueous solutions of malathion in a laboratory setting. Twenty liter tanks were prepared with dilute aqueous solutions of 50-ppb malathion by dissolving 1 mg of laboratory grade malathion (Supelco PS86, Malathion, Neat) into a distilled water bath. Each twenty liter tank prepared was verified to be within 30% (15 ppb) of the nominal target concentration 50 ppb. The malathion exposure tank was stagnant, hand-stirred, and then mechanically stirred during three different stirring exposure phases of the protocol. The tanks were at room temperature (21C) and swimming pool temperature (29C or 90F) during two different temperature exposure phases of the protocol as well. Subjects placed both hands and forearms (total body surface area exposed: Fs = 0.11) into the dilute aqueous 50-ppb malathion solution for up to two (2) hours. Malathion solution assays were then made via the "disappearance method" on the tank solution before and after the exposure period. Volunteer exposure time was gradually increased during several different phases of the protocol from 30 minutes to 120 minutes.

Malathion quantification and skin abosorption analysis

Malathion assays were performed by passing 500 ml of the tank exposure solution through Bakerbond C18 Speedisks (Part Number 8055-06). Speedisks with extracted malathion solute were then shipped in a sealed container to Ecology and Environment, Inc., for completion of the EPA SW-846 assay method, which is sensitive to 0.5 ppb. Malathion was detected and quantified using gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy.

Calculations of chemical flux into skin from the exposure solution are estimated according to Fick's Law as the difference in chemical mass contained in the exposure solution at the beginning and end of the exposure period, divided by the corresponding exposed dermal surface areas. [16],[17] Kp-malathion (permeability constant across the skin) [Table 1] was then derived from the actual Fs (fraction of skin in contact with exposure solution) exposure model. To extrapolate the potential absorption from total body/swimming pool exposure, Kp-malathion was applied to an Fs = 1.00 for both adult [Table 2] and child [Table 3] models. The hazard index (HI) values for theoretical three-hour swimming pool exposures were then calculated based upon experimentally derived Dd (skin dosage of malathion absorbed) and Kp-malathion values. The HI model is a worst-case-scenario analysis and assumes the subject volunteer absorbs all the malathion in the exposure tank, 1 mg, or 12 mcg/kg/day. Since the Reference Exposure Level (REL) is 200 mcg/kg/day, Hazard Index = 12/200 or 0.06, health protection is guaranteed since the estimated dosage is an order of magnitude below the relevant REL and HI.

In order to assess the absorption of malaoxon produced by malathion conversion in chlorinated swimming pool water, Kp-malaoxon must be estimated. Bogen's empirical formula for Kp values is based upon molecular weight and oil-water partition coefficient values that can be applied to solublized malaoxon. In this case, owing to the more polar qualities of malaoxon, Kp-malaoxon is estimated to be one-half that of Kp-malathion. [12],[13],[14],[15]

   Results Top

Subject eleven was removed from the study population due to a null concentration of malathion measured during the exposure period, leaving 19 subjects for analysis. Eight of nineteen subjects (42%) absorbed no malathion from solution, receiving no measurable malathion dose during exposure, while eleven subjects (58%) absorbed various amounts of malathion from the aqueous solution [Figure 1]. Experimental Kp-malathion values derived from human volunteer exposures ranged from 0 - 0.0051 L/cm 2 /hr, with a mean value of 0.0005 L/cm 2 /hr [Figure 2].

Using the experimentally-derived Kp-malathion values, the Hazard Index (HI) calculations based on adult swimmers immersed for three hours in 30 ppb malathion ranged from 0-0.06, with a mean HI of 0.01 HI values for child swimmers immersed three hours in 30 ppb malathion ranged from 0-0.08, with a mean HI of 0.01. Applying the experimentally derived Kp-malathion and the estimated Kp-malaoxon, the HI values for adult swimmers immersed for three hours in 30 ppb malathion + 30 ppb malaoxon ranged from 0-2.0, with a mean HI of 0.21. The HI values for child swimmers immersed three hours in 30 ppb malathion + 30 ppb malaoxon ranged from 0-2.8 with a mean HI of 0.29.

   Discussion Top

As compared to malathion and malaoxon, toluene and chloroform are smaller in molecular weight but with similar oil-water partition coefficients. Thus, according to Bogen's equation, toluene and chloroform should have considerably larger permeability constants (Kp). [12],[17] However, the experimentally derived Kp-malathion of .0005 L/cm 2 /hr obtained in this study is actually very similar to those previously obtained by other investigators for Kp-toluene (.0008 L/cm 2 /hr) and Kp-choloroform (0.0001 L/cm 2 /hr).

Utilizing the experimentally-derived Kp-malathion, the HI for adult and child swimmers immersed for three hours in a malathion-only contaminated swimming pool water ranged from 0-0.08. These data indicate that exposure to dilute aqueous malathion solutions following usual aerial bait applications is not appreciably absorbed, and therefore, not a public health hazard.

One consideration with aerial bait application is that malathion is easily oxidized to the more potent malaoxon by chlorine within swimming pools. This is evidenced by the fact that both California and Florida environmental agencies and public health authorities found malaoxon contamination of public and private swimming pools in the days and weeks following aerial bait application. [2],[5],[15],[18],[19]

Since malaoxon is 68 times as toxic as malathion, human volunteer exposure is generally considered too dangerous for human experimentation. Therefore, in order to analyze the potential toxicity of external malaoxon contamination and exposure in the swimming pool model, it is necessary to estimate Kp-malaoxon. Since Bogen's empirical formula for Kp values is based upon molecular weight and oil-water partition coefficient values, a value for Kp-malaoxon can be estimated. In this case, owing to the more polar qualities of malaoxon, Kp-malaoxon is conservatively estimated to be one-half that of Kp-malathion. [12],[16],[17]

The HI for swimmers immersed for three hours in a malathion plus malaoxon contaminated pool was modeled using the experimentally-derived Kp-malathion, and Bogen's technique to estimate Kp-malaoxon. This methodology yielded an average HI of 0.21 for adult swimmers, with a mean HI for child swimmers of 0.29. Although the HI slightly exceeded 1.0 at the upper confidence level (UCL) (two standard deviations) for the malathion plus malaoxon exposure model, the conservative estimate of Kp-malaoxon makes it unreasonable to conclude that the exposure represents any actual public health hazard.

   Conclusion Top

Malathion skin absorption was measured in 58% of the exposed human volunteers by the "disappearance method". The Kp-malathion was determined to be 0.0005 L/cm 2 /hr. The resulting dose in human volunteers from this controlled exposure to aqueous malathion solution was several orders of magnitude less than the minimal dose known to cause a measurable change in acetylcholinesterase activity. Using the experimentally determined Kp-malathion, a mathematical model was used to evaluate the exposures of swimmers (both adults and children, with and without exogenous malaoxon present) to aqueous malathion concentrations typically detected after aerial bait applications. The resulting HI values were an order of magnitude below that known to result in anticholinesterase toxicity. These data indicate that exposure to aqueous malathion following usual aerial bait applications is not appreciably absorbed, and therefore is not a public health hazard.

   References Top

1.Caldwell J. Biological basis of detoxification. Vol. no. 125-7. Acad Press; 1983. p. 244-352.  Back to cited text no. 1    
2.Caplan PE, Culver D, Thielen WC. Human exposures in populated areas during airplane application of malathion. AMA Arch Ind Health 1956;14:326-32.  Back to cited text no. 2  [PUBMED]  
3.Howard PH, editor. Handbook of environmental fate and exposure data for organic chemicals. Vol 3: Pesticides. Chelsea, MI: Lewis Publishers; 1991. p. 5-13.  Back to cited text no. 3    
4.Kizer KW. Health Risk Assessment of Aerial Application of Malathion-Bait. State of California Department of Health Services, February 1991.  Back to cited text no. 4    
5.Murphy SA. Aerial pest eradication in Massachusetts and California and the pesticide malathion. Environ Affairs 1992;19:851-84.  Back to cited text no. 5    
6.Wolfe NL, Zepp RG, Baughman GL, Gordon JA. Kinetic investigation of malathion degradation in water. Bull Environ Contam Toxicol 1975;13:707-13.  Back to cited text no. 6  [PUBMED]  
7.Aldridge WN, Miles JW, Mount DL, Verschoyle RD. The toxicological properties of impurities in malathion. Arch Toxicol 1979;42:95-106.  Back to cited text no. 7  [PUBMED]  
8.Baselt RC. Disposition of Toxic Drugs and Chemicals in Man. 6th ed. Foster City, CA: Biomedical Publications; 2002. p. 604-6.  Back to cited text no. 8    
9.Bender ME. The toxicity of the hydrolysis and breakdown products of malathion to the fathead minnow. Trans Am Fish Soc 1969;98:571-82.  Back to cited text no. 9    
10.Gitelson S, Aladjemoff L, Ben Hador S, Katznelson R. Poisoning by a malathion-xylene mixture. JAMA 1966;197:819-21.  Back to cited text no. 10  [PUBMED]  
11.Jianmongkol S, Berkman CE, Thompson CM, Richardson RJ. Relative potencies of the four stereoisomers of isomalathion for inhibition of hen brain acetylcholinesterase and neurotoxic esterase in vitro. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol 1996;139:342-8.  Back to cited text no. 11  [PUBMED]  [FULLTEXT]
12.Bogen KT, Keating G, Vogel JS. Chloroform and trichloroethylene uptake from water into human skin in vitro: Kinetics and risk implications. LLNL; 1995. #UCRL-JC-120107.  Back to cited text no. 12    
13.Bogen KT. Models based on steady-state in vitro dermal permeability data underestimate short-term in vivo exposures to organic chemicals in water. J Exp Anal Environ Epidem 1994;4:457-75.  Back to cited text no. 13    
14.Bogen KT, Colston BW Jr, Machicao LK. Dermal absorption of dilute aqueous chloroform, trichloroethylene, and tetrachloroethylene in hairless guinea pigs. Fundam Appl Toxicol 1992;18:30-9.  Back to cited text no. 14  [PUBMED]  
15.Bogen KT. Health risk assessment of trichloroethylene in California drinking water. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) 1988. Report #UCRL-21007.  Back to cited text no. 15    
16.Dutkiewicz T, Tyras H. A study of skin absorption of ethylbenzene in man. Br J Ind Med 1967:24:330-2.  Back to cited text no. 16    
17.Dutkiewicz T, Tyras H. Skin absorption of toluene, styrene and xylene by man. Br J Ind Med 1968:25:243.  Back to cited text no. 17    
18.Beech JA. Estimated worst case trihalomethane body burden of a child using a swimming pool. Med Hypotheses 1980;6:303-7.  Back to cited text no. 18  [PUBMED]  [FULLTEXT]
19.Smith HT. Fruit fly cooperative control program. Final Environmental Impact Statement, U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDOA), Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS); 2001.  Back to cited text no. 19    

Correspondence Address:
Raymond D Harbison
Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, Center for Environmental/Occupational Risk Analysis and Management, College of Public Health, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida 33612
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0974-2700.43182

Rights and Permissions


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2]

  [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3]

This article has been cited by
1 Dermal Uptake of 18 Dilute Aqueous Chemicals:In VivoDisappearance-Method Measures Greatly ExceedIn Vitro-Based Predictions
Kenneth T. Bogen
Risk Analysis. 2013; 33(7): 1334
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
2 An unusual presentation of organophosphorus poisoning in a young female with multiple boils with cellulitis
K. Roy, K.L. Karmakar, A. Talukdar, K. Ghosh
Indian Journal of Forensic Medicine &Toxicology. ;


    Similar in PUBMED
   Search Pubmed for
   Search in Google Scholar for
 Related articles
    Email Alert *
    Add to My List *
* Registration required (free)  

    Materials and Me...
    Article Figures
    Article Tables

 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded158    
    Comments [Add]    
    Cited by others 2    

Recommend this journal