Official opposition to the aerial spraying of malathion is mounting in Southeast Los Angeles County and Long Beach, with one city banning low-level formation flying and three others threatening to take legal action to stop the controversial measure.
The Lynwood City Council took the boldest action of any city in the area when it passed an ordinance last week that bans formation flying without city permission at altitudes of 700 feet or less between half an hour after sunset and half an hour before sunrise. State helicopters fly at night and release their loads of pesticide at about 500 feet.
The ordinance is similar to one recently passed by Pasadena, which failed to stop spraying in that city. State and federal officials said cities have no authority to control air traffic.
Lynwood Mayor Robert Henning said the ordinance is his city's best shot at stopping the spraying, which he considers a health threat.
"If enough of the cities get together and do the same thing, somebody has to take note," Henning said last week. "It's too detrimental to our people to allow it to continue. None of us are Medflies."
Henning said Lynwood will have the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department issue misdemeanor citations to pilots who violate the ordinance. Lynwood, which is scheduled to be sprayed March 28, contracts with the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services.
The city councils of Norwalk and Lakewood have authorized their city attorneys to take legal action to stop the aerial spraying, city officials said.
Norwalk recently submitted a friend-of-the-court brief supporting three Orange County cities in an unsuccessful effort to obtain a court order against the spraying.
"We're not giving up, no way, no shape, no form," Norwalk Mayor Grace F. Napolitano said in a recent interview. "People are getting fed up with it."
Napolitano has become one of the Southeast's most vocal opponents of the sprayings. After the Norwalk City Council passed a resolution in opposition to the spraying on Jan. 23, Napolitano promptly sent out letters urging the city councils of surrounding cities to do the same.
The Lakewood City Council also passed a resolution on Jan. 23 calling for a halt to the spraying until the chemical is proven safe. On Feb. 13, the council authorized City Atty. John Todd to consider the city's options for legal action.
"Down the road we may find this is harmful and we should have taken the time to evaluate it," Lakewood Mayor Larry Van Nostran said. "Permanently injuring someone for the rest of their lives is not worth all the fruit and vegetables in California."
But the vote was not unanimous. Councilman Robert G. Wagner opposed both the resolution and taking legal action to stop the spraying. Wagner thinks the spraying is necessary to protect the state's agricultural industry.
"I think it's overblown," Wagner said. "I don't think we're being subjected to malathion to a significant extent."
Seven other Southeast cities and one local school district have passed resolutions calling for a halt to the aerial spraying until it is proven beyond a doubt that the malathion poses no threat to people.
They are Bellflower, Cerritos, Commerce, Compton, Downey, Santa Fe Springs, South Gate and the Bellflower Unified School District. Most urged that sterile fruit flies be used instead to fight the infestation of Mediterranean fruit flies.
The Long Beach City Council passed a resolution last week opposing the spraying. City officials said they are prepared to sue if the spraying is extended beyond two small areas in north and northeastern Long Beach. The City Council also has directed its Sacramento lobbyist to work for passage of legislation to stop the spraying, a city spokesman said.
Despite the uproar, state officials maintain that the spraying is safe and say the growing public opposition is expected to have little effect on the campaign against the Medfly.
"(The lawsuits and protests) are not going to have any effect," said Pat Minyard, Medfly eradication program supervisor.
Minyard said the state is working as quickly possible to obtain more sterile fruit flies, which should reduce or eliminate the need for spraying.
The spraying began in Los Angeles County last August and in Orange County last November. The zones are being sprayed every three weeks. State officials said they expect to step up the frequency of spraying to once every two weeks, and then to once a week when the weather warms.
Opposition to the malathion has increased with each spraying in the months-long campaign.
One of the first demonstrations was held in early December in Norwalk. About 20 people attended the protest, which was organized by Norwalk resident Jean Hinsley.
Hinsley said she polled about 350 residents in more than 90 neighborhood homes and discovered that about 22% had suffered headaches, sore throats, diarrhea and vomiting after being sprayed in early December.
In a Los Angeles Times poll conducted last month, about 20% of the 1,901 residents questioned in Los Angeles and Orange counties said they had suffered spray-related health problems such as coughing and headaches.
"We were told there was no health hazard," Hinsley said in a recent interview. "But it was never proven safe."
Several protest demonstrations also have been held in Lakewood. More than 200 people attended the largest protest about three weeks ago.
"We have a lot of evidence that says it isn't safe," Bellflower resident and organizer Marty Asolas said.
Asolas estimated there are more than 60 residents in Southeast cities, including Bellflower, Lakewood, Norwalk and Paramount, actively organizing against the aerial spraying. Dozens of others are circulating petitions and passing out information on the dangers of malathion exposure, she said. Long Beach residents have been participating in the Lakewood demonstrations, Asolas said.
A new group of residents opposed to the spraying emerged in Downey about two weeks ago. About 25 members of the group demonstrated in front of Downey City Hall last week.
Several developments last month heightened the fear and resolve of malathion opponents.
First there was the disclosure that Marc A. Lappe, author of a 1980 state study used to demonstrate the safety of malathion, disavowed the report's findings.
Lappe, a professor of health policy and ethics at the University of Illinois, said he found that malathion could cause six extra cases of cancer for every million people, six times greater than the risk stated by the official report.
State health officials discounted Lappe's criticism, saying the changes in the report were scientifically insignificant.
Then came the disclosure that a U.S. government toxicologist argued repeatedly in an internal memo that there was enough evidence to warrant further study of the pesticide's potential to cause cancer.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official responded that additional studies would be performed, but the official said the EPA is not concerned about malathion as a carcinogen.
And finally, it was discovered that health officials in Los Angeles and Orange counties had sent letters to thousands of local doctors informing them that moderate, airborne exposure to malathion may cause "direct irritant effects . . . eye and throat irritation or chest tightness. If exposure is prolonged, headache or nausea might develop." The letters said health officials expect "no serious or long-term health effects" from malathion exposure.
The letters, which were reviewed by state health officials, appeared to contradict notices the state had distributed to residents in the spray zones. Those notices declared "no health hazard" but urged residents to stay indoors during spraying.
Overall the residents organizing against malathion spraying said they were reasonably satisfied with the action taken by their city councils. But for some, the councils are dragging their feet.
"We feel very strongly that the (Downey) City Council is not doing enough," said Catherine Neumann, organizer of a fledgling Downey group. "We'll ask them to file a lawsuit."
Times staff writer Lee Harris and editorial assistant Mike Ramos contributed to this story.