As the state Department of Food and Agriculture gets ready to spray a synthetic pheromone to eradicate the light brown apple moth in Santa Cruz County, skeptics including the head of the local Sierra Club and the mayor of Santa Cruz are expressing reservations.
While some are calling to question the safety of the tiny droplets that will rain down from state planes come November, most are simply concerned that they don't know much about the plan and have had virtually no say over it.
"The process has been so rushed and so incomplete," said Aldo Giacchino, chair of the local chapter of the Sierra Club. He's referring to the emergency declared by the USDA in the spring that opened the door to aerial spraying by the state, even though many nursery growers believe the moth has lived here for a few years already.
It's true that no studies have been conducted on the long-term effects that the manufactured pheromone could have on humans. However, the state claims it's harmless, pointing to the fact that it's been used in Australia for 10 years without any harmful consequences.
Technically called Check Mate OLR-F, the synthetic pheromone is a registered pesticide with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It's also classified as a Toxic III chemical, which by definition means it's considered "low in toxicity," can be irritating to the eyes and skin, and if it came in a bottle on a shelf would have the label "Warning" on it, not "Danger or Poison," according to Dale Kemery, a spokesman with the EPA in Washington, D.C.
"A similar example would be something along the lines of Raid," he said, referring to the brand product that kills ants and insects.
"This is the safest eradication program ever to be carried out in the history of California," said Steve Lyle, a spokesman with the Department of Food and Agriculture.
The program began earlier this month in the skies above Monterey County -- the first time aerial spraying like this has taken place in a residential setting. In November, the state plans six nights of spraying in parts of northern Monterey County and Santa Cruz County, including Soquel, Capitola, Live Oak, Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley, where the majority of moths in the state have been found.
Spraying critics in Monterey County, where a second round is slated to begin next month, aren't convinced of its safety.
A few residents are reporting problems with their health since the spraying occurred, including unusual spates of coughing and sore throats.
"Whether it's psychosomatic or not, we don't know," said Dave Dilworth, executive director of Helping Our Peninsula's Environment, which two days ago sent a letter to the EPA asking the agency to prohibit the aerial spraying. "But the fact that there have been no tests is irresponsible on the part of the state, and we don't even think the light brown apple moth warrants such emergency spraying."
The pheromone, encapsulated in droplets, is manufactured by Suterra, based in Bend, Ore. The company's president, Steve Hartmeier, equated the spray to pollen -- or smaller than a grain of sand found on the beach.
He stands by its safety.
"I think the product has become a scapegoat," he said. "I think the ones who aren't happy are just frustrated and using the spray as an excuse because the government is spraying over them and nobody wants to have anything done to them without their consent."
With exceptions for the USDA and EPA, the company, for proprietary reasons, won't disclose the secret recipe -- that is, what combination of chemicals it's actually using to replicate the scent of a female light brown apple moth. A few of the key ingredients include water, polyvinyl alcohol, tricaprylyl methyl ammonium chloride, sodium phosphate, and polymethylene polyphenyl isocyanate.
Once the scent fills the air, the male moths are distracted and lured off track from the real females, thus disrupting the mating process.
But the pesticide could have an adverse effect on marine life, particularly invertebrates, like abalone and crabs -- the stuff that sea otters feed on, according to Bridget Hoover, director of the water quality protection program for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It's a point that has led the sanctuary to enter into talks with the USDA, the EPA and the state Department of Food and Agricultural, she said.
"Right now, we're trying to figure out just how toxic it is," Hoover said.
The state, aware of the sanctuary's concerns, has promised to steer clear of the ocean in its aerial spraying, and continues to stand by its assertion that the eradication effort is the safest in the history of the state. Furthermore, Lyle has said that the pheromone immediately breaks down once it hits the water.
Mayor Emily Reilly asked the city attorney, John Barisone, about the possibilities of suing for an injunction to stop the aerial spraying. But Barisone said that because the spraying hasn't begun and nobody has been hurt by it, there's really no legal recourse.
In the interim, Reilly said she's talked with the mayors of Scotts Valley, Capitola and Watsonville and all three are slightly upset by the lack of public discourse and influence, a sentiment that played out equally in Seaside, Marina, Monterey and Pacific Grove.
Reilly said she plans to bring up the issue the second week of October, at the next Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments meeting.
"Now's a time when people are mistrustful of government anyway," she said. "The people of Santa Cruz want to know the facts. Show us the statistics. Give us the science. From what I understand, the farmers seem to have it contained, and have other ways to get rid of the moth."
Farmers have attached pheromone "twist ties" to trees to distract the moths, and nursery growers have been using two forms of pesticides to spray their infected plants since state and federal quarantines were set up in the wake of the discovery of the moths in the spring.
But those pesticides are considered far more harmful than the pheromone, according to the California Certified Organic Farmers and the Alliance for Food and Farming.
Joy Colangelo, an occupational therapist in Pacific Grove, said she is having a hard time wondering why there is a fuss about the fact that the chemical has not been tested on humans.
"And if we want to talk about products not tested before use, let's look at the 10,500 compounds and chemicals used to make hair and skin products," she wrote in a commentary to the Monterey County Herald. "According to the Food and Drug Administration, a full 89 percent of them have never been tested for safety and a third of them contain ingredients linked to cancer. Phthalates, banned in the always more thoughtful European Union, are found in 80 percent of the relatively few products tested in the United States."Contact Tom Ragan at email@example.com.