Play, don't spray

postcard_final.jpgFor months, the biggest environmental issue in Northern California has been the state's plans to conduct aerial spraying of pesticides to eradicate the light brown apple moth, a native of Australia that is smaller than a penny. Agriculture officials say the invasive moth could devastate more than 200 California crops worth millions of dollars, or as state ag Secretary A.G. Kawamura says, it "threatens the safety of our agriculture, environment and economy."

But the state's solution – dive-bombing the 7 million-plus residents of the Bay Area with a synthetic moth pheromone that hasn't been adequately tested – threatens public health. The warning label for the pesticide, CheckMate, says: "Harmful if inhaled. Avoid breathing vapor or spray mist. . . . Do not apply this product in a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift." After a first round of spraying last fall in Monterey and Santa Cruz, hundreds of people reported respiratory problems.

The standoff has led to packed town hall meetings and public hearings, protests, petitions and no less than 5 bills from state lawmakers to stop or postpone the spraying. Last week there was finally a victory for common sense, as a Santa Cruz County judge ordered a halt to any more spraying there, and Gov. Schwarzenegger put the scheme on hold until safety tests are conducted.

The judge rejected the state's arguments that the moth infestation is an emergency. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Schwarzenegger said "he remains convinced the chemicals used for spraying are safe but called for the temporary halt to allow for a series of tests on possible eye, inhalation, respiratory and other potential irritants."

"I am confident that the additional tests will reassure Californians that we are taking the safest, most progressive approach to ridding our state of this very real threat to our agriculture, environment and economy," Schwarzenegger said.

Safest? Progressive? We went through this a decade ago, fighting the state over the spraying of a toxic nerve gas, methyl bromide, on strawberry fields near hundreds of schools. When people got sick from methyl bromide exposure, too often state and local officials' response was to assure folks that their symptoms were imaginary or not related to the pesticide. The precautionary principle would argue that even if you're "confident" the chemical is safe, when people are getting sick, something's causing it. Hey, who are you going to believe, the state's studies or your own wheezing lungs?

If you'd like to learn more about the apple moth and the spraying plan, check out Play Not Spray. And if you want to let the governor know what you think of the plan, you can e-mail him here.

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