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Spraying for Medflies, Stirring Up a Backlash : Agriculture: Malathion may be a ‘safe’ insecticide, but dousing by helicopter isn’t what it was intended for and hasn’t been adequately studied.

<i> Mary Nichols is a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. </i>

The official notice is shoved through the mail slot or tucked under the windshield wiper. In English and Spanish, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the Office of the County Agricultural Commissioner announce: “An aerial application of malathion protein bait is necessary in your area, due to the presence of the Mediterranean fruit fly.”

The next night, helicopter bombardment begins. And it continues, sometimes as often as 12 times in a single neighborhood. To many, this is just another oddity of life in a semiarid tropical paradise; cover the fishpond, hose down the lemon tree, a quick trip to the carwash next morning and it’s all over. But for a growing number of grumpy urban villagers, sticky chemical rain is one assault they don’t want to put up with. Who cares about the Medfly, anyway?

Obviously federal, state and county agriculture officials care plenty. They are willing to subject a widening area, populated by millions of citizens whose only relationship to agricultural production may be a back-yard kumquat, to wholesale aerial spraying. Malathion, the pesticide of choice, kills many beneficial insects as well as Medflies. The sole purpose is to prevent the flies from marching inexorably toward Modesto--from an agricultural point of view, it is cheaper to spray most of Los Angeles and Orange counties for a year than to spray or treat produce from the Central Valley.

The price of spraying malathion over the largest population center in California may be considerably more than helicopter rental and chemicals, however. As the Medfly war drags on, without apparent victories and over an increasingly larger battlefield, questions are being raised about the whole approach to agricultural pest management in the nation’s largest produce-exporting state. These questions pit some (though by no means all) California agribusinesses--and the chemical industry that services them--against consumers and farm workers.

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Malathion, ironically, is probably the safest pesticide in use today. As the official notice says, it is used by many home gardeners. But those gardeners spray malathion directly on insect-infested plants, not over whole neighborhoods--swimming pools, toddler’s tricycles and all. Perhaps most important, the home gardener is not spraying from helicopters in the dark. For many Southern Californians--including refugees from real war zones, as well as those whose neighborhoods are sometimes policed by air--the sound of helicopters at night is a cause for genuine alarm.

The fact that malathion is relatively innocuous compared with other chemicals currently in use and that government agencies have proclaimed it safe does not mean the end of the health and safety debate. No scientific studies or public hearings have been conducted to support the safety of general spraying of malathion over urban areas. Even assuming that current official assessments of risk are correct, even a very small risk of neurological damage is magnified by the very large numbers of people exposed. The finding of no significant risk is only applicable to uses of the pesticide for which it is registered--i.e., ground application on selected crops that are washed before they are consumed.

After the public controversy aroused by former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s intervention in the 1982 California Medfly infestation died down, the state Department of Health Services did gather data on birth defects. Not surprisingly, in a short-term study the researchers failed to find a link between spraying malathion and harm to fetuses. Other, more subtle health effects were never studied simply because studies cost money and the state chose to put its limited health-research dollars elsewhere once public attention wandered off the issue.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has called for manufacturers of malathion to provide more health data to support re-registration of the insecticide. The agency refuses to make its data public despite public requests sparked by rumors that a new study establishes a link between malathion and cancer.

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The EPA has chosen to evade the current controversy by claiming its studies are part of internal decision-making, therefore exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Prodded by concerned residents, several cities including Los Angeles are now holding hearings and threatening legislation to halt the spraying. State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) last week introduced a bill to ban aerial spraying pending further health studies. Meanwhile, spraying continues, set through summer. The longer it continues, the more impetus it provides for a more sweeping solution--"Big Green"--than either lawsuits or the Torres bill would offer.

Big Green is the environmental-protection limitation initiative of 1990, a comprehensive measure now being circulated for the November ballot by a coalition that includes major environmental organizations, elected officials and such political groups as the California League of Conservation Voters. Among other reforms, the initiative would take control of the registration of pesticides away from agriculture officials and put it in the hands of the Department of Health Service.

Losing control of the registration process is the threat the chemical industry fears most; the trade association of agricultural pesticide manufacturers is already gearing up its own counterinitiative to draw votes away.

The Medfly may have flown away as an issue by then, but the sound of helicopters and the smell of sticky malathion bait will still be fresh in the minds of many big-city voters.

California’s pesticide industry may win the current battle but it is now at greater risk of losing the war.


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