October 12, 2007

As We See It: Public has right to know spray ingredients

Sentinel Staff Report

The public has a right to know what is in the pesticide spray that seeks to eradicate the light brown apple moth.

We say that while also supporting the eradication program, which, on the basis of the evidence presented by state Department of Agriculture, is both necessary and somewhat urgent. Not doing anything could wreak economic havoc with the local and state agriculture industry and affect consumers as well.

The decision Wednesday by a Monterey County Superior Court judge to temporarily halt spraying the pesticide in that county doesn't change our opinion. Judge Robert O'Farrell said he was granting the request by a group opposed to the spraying because he didn't have enough "reliable scientific evidence" to make an informed decision whether polymethylene polyphenyl isocyanate [PPI], an inert ingredient in the pheromone spray, is harmful to people's health. O'Farrell also said that he would not have halted the spraying based only on the application of pheromones.

The name of that ingredient has been a subject of dispute that has involved the Sentinel.

Last month, an official with the federal Environmental Protection Agency told a Sentinel reporter the ingredients in the spray, which is made by an Oregon company, Suterra LLC.

We published that information.

Subsequently, this newspaper was informed that publishing the names of the ingredients in the spray violated both federal and state trade secret laws.

Acting on the informed opinions of lawyers and experts on the trade secrets laws, we then removed the names of the ingredients from our Web site, but continued to investigate the scientific evidence on the safety of the inert ingredient.

However, since the judge has published the name of the ingredient in his opinion, we again are naming it.

In a story published in Thursday's Sentinel, reporter Tom Ragan quoted two chemists who said they have no evidence PPI, while possibly harmful in large doses by itself, will harm people when mixed with other ingredients in the spray.

To complicate matters, the spray planned next month for Santa Cruz County is not exactly the same as the one used for Monterey County. State Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura told reporters that the Santa Cruz County spray uses a different pheromone.

The pheromone is a synthetic version of a substance secreted by the female moth; both aim to disrupt the moths' mating cycle.

We understand why the agriculture department and the pesticide manufacturer don't want to reveal the exact ingredients. Not only are there competitors who want to know how to replicate the spray, but there is also the sense of unwarranted public overreaction caused by disinformation or misleading research by well-meaning citizens who may not have the scientific background to provide reliable information.

The Santa Cruz City Council, for instance, is hoping to get other cities in this county to join them in a lawsuit that would prohibit the spraying next month.

All the better reason for both the state and Suterra to deal with the ingredient issue head-on. By providing a list of the ingredients and, as the Monterey County judge is requiring, the scientific evidence on the health and safety aspects, they would diminish the perception they have something to hide.