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Organophosph ates are a class of chemicals (specifically esters of phosphoric acid), many of which act as neurotoxins. Organophosphates are created primarily through reactions between phosphoric acid and alcohol, a process that has been used since the middle of the 19th century. Used as pesticides and chemical weapons, they are among the most toxic substances to humans and other vertebrates. They have been used on an industrial scale as pesticides and on a smaller scale for therapeutic purposes. Organophosphates have also been used as a weapon by some military forces and one form, sarin, was used in a terrorist attack on the subways of Tokyo in 1995, which led to numerous deaths and thousands of injuries. Contact with organophosphates at a low level may have negative health impacts, although the evidence is not fully established. There is considerable research concerning the possible use of organophosphates in treating dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Other medical and industrial applications are under active consideration.
The use of organophosphates as pesticides is generally controlled by governmental agencies owing to the persistence and severity of the toxicity of the substance. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors and regulates the use of the chemicals in industrial and domestic terms. Their use has been permitted when fears about the spread of infectious disease have been raised. A well-known example is that of the outbreak of West Nile virus, which led to chemical spraying in New York’s Central Park, as well as other parts of the country.
Such decisions are often controversial because of evidence of health concerns from proximate exposure. There is always a measure of conflict between those who wish to use organophosphates or any other form of chemical as effective agents in industrial processes for economic gain, and those who believe that potential long-term risks make this an unwise proposition.
In developing countries, the poorest and most vulnerable rural workers are most likely to be exposed to pesticides, and they are the least likely to receive effective medical intervention. In the developed world, acute exposure to organophosphates among farm workers represents a serious environmental justice issue, as does long-term exposure at lower dosages in urban settings.
- Lucio G. Costa, “Current Issues in Organophosphate Toxicology,” Clinica Chimica Acta (v.366/1-2, 2006);
- Ramesh Gupta, Toxicology o( Organophosphate and Carbamate Compounds (Academic Press, 2005).