CBS 5 Investigates: Is Apple Moth Really A Risk?

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) ― The government claims it's an emergency. They say they have to conduct aerial spraying over the Bay Area immediately to eradicate the light brown apple moth. But a CBS 5 Investigation has found there may not be an emergency at all.

Starting August 1st, the government plans to spray us from the air with a pesticide designed to stop the moths from mating. It is a reality that's just beginning to dawn on residents in the Bay Area.

Officials say there's no time for public input. But some are saying slow down, the rush to eradicate could harm more than help.

"I was having a really bad time breathing, really bad wheezing," said 9-year old Nora Alongi-Aron. She went to the emergency room for the first time ever, last fall.

"This was a very serious asthma attack that I have never seen in this child before," her mother, Dr. Krista Alongi-Aron said.

Alongi-Aron's trip to the emergency room happened after the state sprayed pesticides over Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. And she is not alone.

Monterey County resident Mike Lynberg, who collected other reports of health problems said, "It felt a little bit like an experiment on our health, and frankly it was unwelcomed."

Especially since that was just the beginning. The state now plans to spray most of the Bay Area, urban neighborhoods included, not just once, but as often as 3 times a month, for 9 months out of the year, for five years or more.

What's the reason behind the spraying? The light brown apple moth, native to Australia is now here. And the worry? The state says the tiny moth could cause millions of dollars in crop damage.

But is it safe to spray these chemicals over nearly 7 million people in the Bay Area?

"It's been shown to be, incredibly safe," State Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura told CBS 5 Investigates. He said because the moth is so widespread, it must be attacked with a pheromone product, from the air.

"We just don't have the logistical ability to cover 700 plus square miles with a ground crew," Kawamura said.

He said the emergency is so great; the state can't even afford to wait for an environmental impact report.

"If we were to wait a year, even 6, 7, 8 months, we might lose that window," Kawamura said. "We stand an excellent chance to eradicate it if we act on it quickly."

But James Carey, an entomology professor at UC Davis, disagrees. He is an expert on "invasion biology," how insects get into an area and spread.

"It won't work," Carey said. "Historically, there is no precedent for this at all. None. The data argue absolutely for the impossibility of this eradication."

Why? Because he said it is a huge infestation.

"No matter how much they spray this pheromone, it's simply not going to eradicate this population, it's simply too widespread." Carey said.

"I just disagree," Kawamura said. "We as a group, those of us who believe, we just disagree with him."

And one of Secretary Kawamura's reasons for disagreeing with Professor Carey?

"He's not an entomologist," Kawamura said.

"Well I don't know where he got this one," Carey responded. "Are you serious? I'm not an entomologist? I've never heard that."

And what's more, Professor Carey said this is not even an emergency, because he believes the moths have been in California for a long time, at least 30 years, maybe even 50, with no crop damage, by the state's own admission.

But Secretary Kawamura said the potential for damage outweighs what he calls the negligible health risks of spraying over cities.

"Looking at the science we're told by the agencies that nothing should happen," he said.

When CBS 5 Investigates asked Kawamura "But you can't say it won't happen?" he responded, "Well, you can't."

That concerns Caroline Cox, a pesticide expert with the Center for Environmental Health.

"When I saw what kind of test information was available for the chemicals in that product, almost no testing where the testing was done by breathing it in," she said. Cox pointed out there has been no long term testing for health impacts from breathing the spray.

"Since that's the main way that we will be exposed to it when the spraying occurs, that is a huge, huge lack of information," Cox said.

Not so said Secretary Kawamura, who relies on the EPA's registration process.

"We can only use registered products in our eradication," he told CBS 5 Investigates.

Yet a quick read of the label for the product used in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties shows it is not registered for general use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Instead it received an emergency exemption which bypasses all normal federal and California EPA processes.

In fact, when one reads the label more closely, it shows the spray can't even be used in any state other than California.

"It won't work," Professor Carey said about the whole program. "And so you'll end up having conducted this program for several years subjecting people to this spray, yet not achieving eradication which was the whole point and you're still left with the light brown apple moth in California."

(© MMVIII, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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