No aerial spraying

Organic farmers manage to produce crops every year without dumping chemicals on them
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EDITORIAL The tiny light brown apple moth has become a huge environmental deal in Northern California. Ever since a retired entomologist found one in his Berkeley back yard a year ago, state and federal agencies have been in full attack mode. Now they're preparing to send a fleet of airplanes to dump thousands of gallons of pest-control spray over San Francisco and the East Bay this summer. The aerial bombardment is likely to be ineffective — and it may have serious health impacts on humans. It's a bad idea, and it needs to be stopped.

As Sarah Phelan, who first broke this story, reports on page 10, that won't be easy: the California Department of Food and Agriculture is holding public hearings on the spraying but has insisted it will go forward no matter how much opposition emerges. State Sen. Carole Migden is trying to block the plan in the Legislature, but the governor will likely veto any bill she can get passed. So it may be that the only way to prevent San Franciscans from facing a pesticide carpet-bombing the first week in August is for somebody to file a lawsuit.

The moth frightens farmers because its larvae eat a wide variety of plants. The tiny caterpillars could do more than $600 million worth of damage to the state's crops every year, the CDFA says.

The pest is native to Australia and had never before been reported on the United States mainland. So the authorities decided that the best solution was to eradicate it — and that the most effective way to do that was to drown the affected regions in a chemical called Checkmate.

Checkmate isn't a poison, the way some of the nastier pesticides are. It contains an artificial version of a pheromone that female moths release to attract males during mating season. The idea is that if the pheromones are floating around in the air, the boy moths will get confused and never find the girls, and eventually the population will die out.

The mating scent is delivered in tiny bubbles of a plastic-type substance. Over time, the little capsules melt and the pheromone is released into the air. The way the state describes the spray, it can take up to 70 days for all of the active ingredients to become airborne. One application is supposed to last throughout the moth's mating season.

But this theory has never been tested on a large scale, and some critics say it's unlikely the pheromone assault will actually wipe out the brown apple moth population. If even just a few of the creatures manage to mate and produce offspring, the whole effort could be a failure.

The CDFA insists that Checkmate is totally safe for humans and pets, that it contains nothing toxic, and that the moth pheromone has no impact on anything other than this one type of insect. But the advisory label on Checkmate cans warns people who are applying the stuff to wear protective clothing and masks. The tiny capsules (which are not biodegradable) can't be good for people with respiratory issues. Some residents of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, where a first batch was sprayed last summer, reported health effects.

And we've been around long enough to distrust officials who tell us that chemicals sprayed into the air are perfectly safe. As one Vietnam veteran testified at a public hearing last week, the government used to say that Agent Orange was harmless too.

San Francisco and the East Bay are dense urban areas with millions of people — hundreds of thousands of them children. If the health impacts of massive aerial spraying of moth pheromones are not definitively known, it's a bad idea to go forward.

We recognize that the moth is a threat to agriculture; so are thousands of other pests. Organic farmers manage to produce crops every year without dumping chemicals on them.

There was a time when a governor named Jerry Brown stood his ground and refused to allow aerial spraying of a toxic chemical called malathion to kill Mediterranean fruit flies.