Albany to State Ag Department: Bug Off 

Invasive moth prompts state to consider spraying experimental pesticide. City's residents aren't happy.

When a retired entomologist caught two Light Brown Apple Moths last February in his Berkeley garden, few could have guessed that agricultural authorities would authorize the Golden State's first mass aerial pesticide spraying in nearly six years. It was the first known California sighting of the moth, a tropic pest that annually eats $20 million of Australian produce. Agricultural officials worried that the insect could wreak similar havoc on the state's agricultural economy. But when crop dusters bathed Santa Cruz County in pesticides last fall, the public protested.

Now Alameda County is next on the list, to the dismay of critics who point to the pesticide's unknown effects on humans and widespread accounts of allergic reactions by residents of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

Since its discovery last winter, the moth has spread to as many as ten counties and traveled as far south as far as Los Angeles. Its rapid spread prompted the US Department of Agriculture to quarantine areas inhabited by the moth by restricting nursery transports to protect California's $30 billion-a-year Central Valley agriculture. Quarantines have extended across Alameda County, along with parts of Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties.

Because the California Department of Food and Agriculture deemed the foreign moth a pest, it received millions of dollars in federal eradication funds. And thanks to an "emergency action" clause in the California Environmental Quality Act, it was permitted to waive the usual environmental impact reports, freeing it to dust heavily populated areas with CheckMate, a pesticide never before used on humans.

State officials initially refused to say precisely what was in the pesticide. But after the contents were released, Richard Philp, a Canadian toxicologist hired by Santa Cruz County, found that some of its components are cancer-causing to humans and deadly to fish and other aquatic species.

Still, popular alarm has done little to deter the state's federally backed campaign. On January 24, the USDA gave the state $74.5 million to combat the infestation. That's on top of another $15 million the state received in August. With money from these emergency grants, Alameda County is currently scheduled to be dusted this spring, although the state announced just this week that it might consider using a chemical other than CheckMate. No time frame was provided for when such a decision might be made.

Scientists hired by the state tout this approach as the best option for eradication. Thinking they're hot on a female moth's trail, male moths gravitate toward the synthetic hormones and are thrown off from finding an actual mate, said UC Davis entomology professor James Carey.

But the fake hormones appear to take a human toll, too. In its first mass deployment, experimental aerial sprays last fall sparked several hundred reports from Santa Cruz County residents of asthma attacks, burning eyes, sore throats, and other allergy-like symptoms immediately after the dust-over. Although the pesticide is composed partly of what one state report called "a mild dermal irritant," other chemicals in the compound apparently induce a slew of internal ailments, including nausea, headaches, dizziness, intestinal pain, and other discomforts that are harder to pinpoint, according to more than six hundred documented complaints from members of the public in Santa Cruz County.

Some Bay Area residents paid keen attention to the Monterey-Santa Cruz uproar and hundreds rallied to prevent the same fracas in their own cities. Some of these critics question whether authorities even had good reason to label the moths as pests. Individuals and local chapters of the Sierra Club collected signatures or wrote protest letters to agencies responsible for the experimental pesticide, dubbed CheckMate.

At least 2,300 Bay Area residents have now signed a petition stating that there's something fundamentally wrong with having no say over whether they want the air they breathe injected with inhalable, microscopic plastic capsules filled with moth pheromones and other chemicals. The petition backs legislation that would mandate citizen consent of pesticide sprays before they're approved.

Albany is the first local city to formally protest the department's plan to dust cropless urban areas. On January 22, Albany Mayor Robert Lieber secured passage of a city resolution opposing the proposed spraying and challenged the California Department of Food and Agriculture to rethink its choice of remedies. The four-page resolution offered six less-toxic pest control measures, based on testimony from an entomologist and a botanist who asserted that the pheromones were poisonous to humans and other animals and would prove an ineffective exterminant.

With Albany taking official action against the purported "emergency eradication," Lieber hopes it will encourage more people to speak out. "We hope we're able to start a grassroots movement to oppose the spraying," Lieber said shortly after the council passed the resolution. "I hope this helps. There's this huge political aspect to this that's really misleading, like why it's classified as a pest in the first place. I don't see any real good reason."

Light Brown Apple Moths, which are believed to have made their way to the United States in the company of imported fruits, normally inhabit more humid climates like New Zealand and Hawaii. But the moths thrive in warm windy climates like the Bay Area, where mild breezes carry virtually weightless larvae on silken threads. They lay eggs on leaves of at least 250 types of plants — mostly fruit trees, such as apples, peaches, and cherries. After hatching, larvae feast on the nutrient-rich leaves, killing off seedlings and damaging more deeply rooted plants.

California Department of Food and Agriculture spokesman Steve Lyle said California-native evergreens like redwoods and cypress also are at risk, as well as a bevy of ornamental plants and vegetation found in public parks and urban gardens throughout the county. Another worry is that the moth will adapt to prey on threatened plant species found only in California, Lyle said. Nonetheless, his department admits that the insect has caused negligible damage to date.

Some scientists believe that measures to eradicate the moth might already be too late. Carey of UC Davis, who supported the California Department of Food and Agriculture's attempts to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly during his time on the state Medfly Scientific Advisory Committee from 1987 to 1994, suggested that population control — as opposed to eradication — is perhaps a better way to go.

Carey, one of the two scientists who testified against the Santa Cruz County sprayings, believes the state is wrong in believing it can still eliminate the tens of thousands of moth population pockets that continue to multiply. "The invasion of the moth is so widespread that eradication is not feasible regardless of the eradication tool being used," Carey testified last November. "To my knowledge, the use of a pheromone to disrupt mating has never been used in any insect eradication attempt."

Opponents of aerial spraying urged the California Department of Food and Agriculture to consider other controls, like mass trappings, releasing natural predators like wasps, or attaching pheromone-infused twist ties to trees and shrubs. Department Undersecretary George Gomes proposed some of these measures in August. A few were implemented, but the state has been pushing aerial spraying more than any of the proposed methods.

The USDA plans to release a survey through all fifty states to find out how far the insect has spread and to determine where else to send millions of dollars for emergency eradication.

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