Northeastern Valley Braces for Malathion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After helicopters spray the air over the northeast San Fernando Valley with insecticide Monday night to combat a Medfly infestation, Dan Hedrick Chevrolet-Geo will throw up a defense of its own: six guys wearing coveralls and wielding wet sponges.

At 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, the car dealer's entire carwash crew will be on the lot scrubbing the sticky chemical off 150 new cars and trucks.

"If we could keep them inside, we probably would," said Donald Hedrick, general manager of the dealership in San Fernando. "But we can't, so we're going to wash them as soon as we can and hope we don't get any damage."

State agriculture officials say automobile paint and fish in outdoor ponds should be protected from the insecticide malathion, which is to be sprayed in very low concentrations from helicopters starting at 9 p.m. Monday over a 17-square-mile area that includes San Fernando, Sylmar and parts of Mission Hills, Granada Hills and Pacoima.

Flyers that answer questions about the Mediterranean fruit fly infestation and explain the minimal harmful effects of the insecticide were distributed by California Conservation Corps crews Friday to 150,000 houses and businesses in the area. The flyers said the corn syrup-based bait in which the malathion is suspended can cause damage to automobile finishes if not washed off.

"We're a little alarmed about it," Hedrick said. He said factory warranties would not cover any damage that might be done to the cars, and the dealership could suffer a financial loss.

Three mature Medflies, which lay their eggs in more than 260 varieties of fruits and vegetables, have been found since Oct. 25 within a few blocks of each other in Sylmar. That was enough to classify the area as infested and to trigger Monday's spraying.

Several carwashes in the area already have full crews scheduled to work Tuesday because it is typically a special coupon day to attract mid-week business. But Ben Noreen, owner of Mission Car Wash on San Fernando Road in San Fernando, said he was not convinced that the clouds of malathion to be sprayed over the area will cause any harm.

"It's hard to say," Noreen said. "They said it's going to be pretty light. . . ."

Experts say malathion is one of the least hazardous insecticides used today and does not pose any danger to children, pregnant women, the elderly or any other groups. The chemical is used routinely on pets as a flea treatment.

Residents of the area were told to stay indoors during the spraying, but only because the corn syrup droplets could stain clothing.

Some residents said they planned to leave the area for the day to avoid the spraying. And more than 100 residents were concerned enough to call an information number at the San Fernando Department of Parks and Recreation.

"They just wanted to be sure whether they were in or out of the area, and to confirm the time of the spraying and wondering whether they should bring their animals in and when they could let them out," said Dave Watt, director of the city's parks department.

At the office of Sierra Realtors on Glenoaks Boulevard in Sylmar, secretary Anna Gonzalez, 21, said she was not worried.

"It's OK because if they don't do that, it will be worse in the future," she said, referring both to the potentially devastating effects of a massive Medfly infestation on agriculture and to the prospect of fleets of helicopters battling the pest nightly if it gets out of control.

After the spraying, which could be delayed if strong Santa Ana winds are blowing, the Cooperative Medfly Project will quarantine the area.

Two project representatives contacted food retailers and plant nurseries in the area Friday to warn them that their products could be infested.

Marko Shadovich of the California Department of Food and Agriculture urged market owners to destroy unprotected fruits, to refuse to buy local back-yard fruit and vegetables, and to keep all produce refrigerated or in closed containers.

"People generally have a cooperative response to this," Shadovich said.

After the area is sprayed and millions of sterile fruit flies are released, monitoring crews from the Medfly project will work with retailers in the area to ensure that their stores do not harbor a potential host for the fly. The area would be quarantined until next summer at the earliest.

Tony Lewis, whose family-owned El Rancho Plaza Market was one of the food retailers contacted Friday by Shadovich, agreed to cover a plastic container of lemons and limes that he sells and to program an electric sign above his cash register to announce Monday's spraying.

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