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Aerial Spraying Is the Talk of This Town : Health: Reactions in El Cajon to the malathion decision run the gamut from anger to ennui. Many want more information.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Judy Heinz ran her hand gingerly along the spanking-new Mercury Cougar that sat in the new-car lot in midtown El Cajon. Then she looked up into the sky, as if she could almost see the helicopters dumping doses of a sugary mixture of malathion on a 16-square-mile area of the city.

Right on top of her car lot.

Heinz sells cars. She knows how aerial spraying can stain and dull the finish of an automobile. She’s seen it happen before.

So don’t tell her that pesticide spraying is completely safe. Don’t say malathion has been safely tested on animals. Those scientists worked in well-scrubbed laboratories, Heinz says. They didn’t spray the pesticide out of helicopters looming over a populated metropolis.

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If malathion can do that kind of damage to cars, she reasons, what effect will it have on people’s bodies--today and tomorrow? She can’t believe that more people aren’t up in arms about Friday’s decision to rain malathion on El Cajon.

“This malathion spraying is serious stuff,” said the manager at De la Fuente Lincoln Mercury. “But most people around here seem to be treating it like it was completely safe. That’s just so naive. And it’s typical of Californians.

“First, they let their air get completely polluted by automobiles. And then they sit back blindly while the government further blackens their air with a drug that hasn’t been totally tested. Just because somebody found two or three Mexican fruit flies.”

On the day the director of the state Department of Food and Agriculture ordered aerial spraying across the heart of El Cajon to combat an infestation of the notorious Mexican fruit fly, people all around the city were talking about pesticides and mulling a future of breathing in the pesticide.

The infestation came to light with the trapping of one male and two egg-bearing female Mexflies within a quarter of a mile of one another in a residential section of El Cajon, just south of Interstate 8.

Local agricultural officials say the Mexfly could seriously threaten the county’s multimillion-dollar agricultural crops without swift and decisive action, such as the aerial spraying.

At gas stations and liquor stores, on front porch stoops and in bank lines, strangers on Friday afternoon began asking one another about the spraying. Many people had heard about studies being done on rats. Some talked about the possibility of deformed fetuses. Most residents, however, admitted they knew too little about the pesticide and its possible effects.

Many agreed on one thing: Spraying on the ground, tree to tree, was something they could handle. But this talk of an outright aerial attack, spraying the chemical from the sky like some bad perfume--that scared people.

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“I just feel so uninformed,” said Robert Kelleher, who lives on a block where one of the flies was found. “I don’t mind them walking around and spraying a few trees. But it gets me kind of jumpy to think they’re going to be dumping pesticide from the sky before giving people a little more information.”

Hanging from a grapefruit tree in his side yard is one of the hundreds of Mexfly traps that government workers have spread around town. The trap is a half-gallon glass bottle containing a muddy-looking fluid--malathion mixed with a sugary protein bait to attract the flies.

Jack Carrasco is one of eight certified trappers for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. On Friday, he checked more than 50 such traps he has planted in fruit trees around town.

He didn’t hit much pay dirt. However, he did find a sterile Medfly he says probably made its way to San Diego from Los Angeles after being loosed by government officials to combat an infestation there. He knew the bug was sterile by a telltale red spot between its eyes.

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Carrasco said he was frankly surprised he hadn’t met with more resistance, more hysteria, as he made his rounds to check the traps. He has had to knock on doors to notify residents of traps planted in their back yards--or he’s left a courtesy notice. Traps placed in front-yard trees can be installed without informing the owner, he said.

“I expected more questions,” he said as he emptied the brown fluid from one trap, looking through a few dead bugs. “But only about half a dozen people have even questioned me.”

On Fiesta Lane, a small dead-end street where one of the flies was found, the reaction to the spraying has been mixed. The neighborhood was quiet Friday afternoon. Most people were still at work. When they arrived home, each one would find several government notices explaining the spraying process and the dangers posed by the Mexflies.

On Wednesday, a government worker knocked on Orville James’ door and inquired whether he minded if his back yard was sprayed. The worker told him to make sure his dog, Charlie-Bob, was safely indoors.

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The following day, a man with an eerie-looking gas mask walked through his yard. That sight made the whole issue sink into Orville James’ head.

“The government has two problems,” he said. “They have to do something about these bugs--and quick. But there’s also the public health to consider. They’re looking for the common ground.”

A few doors away, Antoinette Taylor said she wasn’t bothered by the spraying, either on the ground or from the air. The Fiesta Lane resident said it’s a small price to pay to protect the fruit and vegetable industry.

“I’m all for it,” she said. “I’d rather have the pesticide than the blasted bugs. I mean, my dad used to spray insecticide all the time and I’m still alive. And I don’t think he took too many precautions. I trust the government has the sense to use precautions.”

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Mark Helling isn’t so sure. “I don’t have the time to research the last 600-page manuscript the government has published on the effects of the spraying,” he said. “I just don’t have enough information to make an educated decision.

“My question is, what has the federal government done for me lately? They dropped Agent Orange on our men in Vietnam. To assume that the federal government wouldn’t hurt us is just naive.”

Rick Nelson is another resident who brought Vietnam to mind when he talked about the spraying. As he stood outside an El Cajon gas station, waiting for mechanics to tune up his white Corvair convertible, Nelson worried that the pesticide would worsen his allergy problems.

“For three bugs we’re going to endanger the lives of everybody in this town? That’s ridiculous,” he said. “I went through Vietnam and I survived Agent Orange. But that was a long time ago.

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“I thought I was through with all that kind of fear. Now I gotta worry about being bombed again in my own back yard.”

Down the street, at De la Fuente Lincoln Mercury and Cadillac, salesman Ralph Stewart said he isn’t losing any sleep over the prospect. “I could care less,” he said. “I’ve sprayed Black Flag around my house with the kids around. And that’s worse than this stuff.”

Manager Rick Rodriguez, however, wants to have more of a say in the decision-making. “If I were the governor, I wouldn’t let them do it,” he said. “There’s other methods. He needs to get community reaction before he takes such a drastic step.

“I mean, we live around here. We’re going to feel the effects. I wonder how the governor would feel if they were going to do the spraying around his house. I bet he’d put a stop to it, that’s what. But it’s OK to spray in somebody else’s back yard.”

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Judy Heinz cringes when she thinks of the malathion filtering down over her head, infiltrating the air she breathes.

As the owner of a car dealership in Willman, Minn., in the early 1980s, she watched as government officials sprayed the pesticide from airplanes to combat the spread of disease-carrying mosquitoes.

“They bombarded the whole area with the stuff and nobody seemed to care,” she said. In a freak airport accident, some of the malathion leaked out of a plane and a few people worried if it would contaminate the ground water supply.

Those kinds of things happen when you deal in dangerous pesticides, she said.

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“I don’t know if it hurt anybody, but I know what it did to my cars,” Heinz said. “I’m a real zealot on car paint, and one day I noticed, especially on red cars, that the stuff was curdling the paint in little red globs.

“The average Joe might not realize anything is wrong until he goes to sell his car--then he’s faced with a $1,000 painting bill. I guess the same could be said for your body.”

Heinz said she had to have 100 cars on her sales lot repainted after the spraying. Then she sued the state of Minnesota for damages, and won her case.

“I’m not the owner here, so I can’t say if we’ll sue if our cars are damaged by the malathion,” she said. “But I can tell you one thing: I’m leaving my car in the garage on the day they spray.

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“On that day, you can bet that I’ll be one person taking the bus.”


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