California Secretary of Agriculture Kawamura visits Alameda to defend moth spray program

At last night’s city council meeting—after a brief presentation on California’s strategy to control the Light Brown Apple Moth—a couple of dozen Alameda citizens stepped up to challenge the plan to spray an as-yet-unformulated concoction on Bay Area cities and towns.

While the politics of the situation are intriguing—the ’emergency’ which allows government agencies to sidestep normal health and safety requirements, the fact that the manufacturer of the synthetic pheromones is a Schwarzenegger campaign donor, and, too, that the state recently had to cancel a $500,000, no-bid PR contract to promote the spray—the basic facts remain the same:

(1) There is no scientific consensus regarding how much (or if!) the moth will spread.

(2) There is no scientific consensus on how long the moth has been in California and, therefore, how much of an ’emergency’ it really is.

(3) And, most importantly, there is absolutely no scientific certainty that the synthetic pheromones and the small plastic ‘microcapsules’ in which they will be delivered are at all safe for human beings (not to mention fish, wildlife and water).

After the presentation and hours of citizen comments, council members questioned Kawamura, who became increasingly inarticulate as the evening wore on. Frank Matarrese forced him to admit that if this product were sprayed on fields, farm workers would not be allowed to be in them. Marie Gilmore questioned him on the speed with which the state’s strategy had been developed. And Mayor Beverly Johnson let him know that she was not at all convinced, after hearing details, that the state’s plan is sound. “I came in here with an open mind, but I have two children and I don’t want them to be sprayed,” said Johnson, who also chastised Kawamura for expecting people to accept the wide distribution of unknown agents without question. “If there’s only disclosure,” said Johnson, in response to Kawamura’s assertion that he was doing his best to explain the state’s methods, “the public doesn’t really feel like that’s a dialogue.”

Kawamura repeatedly resorted to scare tactics, implying invasive species will ruin the natural world as we know it if we don’t spray the moth right away. He had odd arguments, too, suggesting that since we are already exposed to pesticides and environmental toxins, we ought not worry about the moth spray. And he made at least one alarming revelation: that the formula for the spray hasn’t even been determined yet (and therefore, obviously, has not been tested for safety). Kawamura was, at core, quite unreassuring, insisting on the one hand that the state would stop spraying right away should there be health problems, yet dismissing out-of-hand the 600-odd health complaints made by citizens after the spraying in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties last fall. “It’s really kind of unimaginable,” said Mayor Johnson.

Have we not learned enough as humans to know that new agents may have unintended consequences both immediately (like Thalidomide) and way down the road (like asbestos).


  • Leslie D.

    “The problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Like reading glasses, technology magnifies and sharpens the near field but makes the distance blurry. The history of science and technology is stuffed with examples of shortsightedness and unintended consequences. Just after 1900, when Mendel’s laws of heredity came to light, geneticists thought that they now had enough knowledge to take control of human evolution. Their false confidence contributed to a eugenics movement that sterilized thousands of Americans and provided the blueprint for the Nazi race-hygiene program. Similarly, no one intended to melt the icecaps, decimate wildlife populations, fill fish with mercury or wreathe our cities in toxic chemicals. Those things have happened accidentally, as the long-term effects of short-term solutions. Such disasters might have been lessened had we been more aware of our own ignorance. Humility in the face of nature’s complexity is not spiritualism. It is realism.”

    Nathaniel C. Comfort
    American Scientist Online

  • Janis De Lay

    I was raised in Fresno, by a farm implement dealer. I understand the farming concerns, but I live in Pacific Grove now. We were the first sprayed and have been sprayed two times. I have lung damage from Valley Fever and I have asthma, but had not had an attack for more than three years. I became very ill after the spraying, suffering repeated asthma attacks along with flu like symptoms. These attacks began about two hours after hearing the planes over head. My husband had a primary asthma attack, but did not recognize it until the wheeze developed.

    My asthma attacks did not improve. I left for two months, two weeks at a time, but always becoming ill again upon returning. Amazingly, I had no asthma problems while I was away, even the two weeks I spent in FRESNO with my sister. After two months my symptoms were better but not completely gone. There are other ways to control LBAM without spraying people trying to sleep in their homes. I know pheromones are used regularly. They are used in organic farming and I eat organics, but using a chemical and forced to breath it deep into your lungs is not the same thing. I’m all for “using pheromones for insect control” on fields. But I’m not an insect and I don’t have any fields.

    It’s never been sprayed over urban areas until now, and the chemicals are untested chemicals. I hope you don’t have to find out the way we found out on the Monterey Bay.

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