Phantom menace — false alarms over aerial pheromone treatments

Sometimes you just have to wonder if seemingly intelligent folks have enough good sense to put one foot in front of the other and make it out the door. When the California Department of Food and Agriculture mounted an aggressive effort two years ago to eradicate the highly destructive light brown apple moth (LBAM) from Northern California coastal counties, officials put aerial sprays of a benign, proven encapsulated pheromone technology into the arsenal.

Pheromone use for mating disruption to reduce pest populations dates back 50 years. It is truly amazing technology that is the cornerstone of many IPM programs and pest exclusion efforts. However, some folks in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties said they got sick when encapsulated pheromones were aerially applied to control LBAM. They said it was the inert ingredient in the product that made almost 500 people sick. Lawsuits were filed and legislation passed to limit aerial applications of the pheromone.

The state investigated what was called a previously unreported inert ingredient in the encapsulated pheromone. Guess what it was? Water. That is what supposedly what made the 500 people ill.

California Department of Pesticide Regulation, the Office of Environmental Health Assessment and the California Department of Public Health investigated the reports following the aerial applications. They concluded 90 percent of the symptoms came with no information about when or where exposure occurred. Simply, there was no link found between the symptoms and the pheromone applications.

Reminds me of an incident years ago in the Phoenix area where people in subdivisions complained that aerial applications to nearby cotton were causing everything from headaches to leukemia. An aerial applicator made a point that the illnesses were psychosomatic rather than real. He loaded his plane’s spray tank with water and flew the field. Health officials were flooded with phone complaints about people becoming ill from the water application before the plane had time to return to the airstrip.

Ironically, CDFA is trying to save coastal residents from themselves. Realistically, CDFA realizes agriculture can control the LBAM if it becomes established. It would be very costly to treat and deal with the quarantines that would follow if LBAM gets into the Central Valley. It is something commercial agriculture does not need.

However, Bob Dowell, who heads the CDFA LBAM eradication effort, says if the LBAM becomes established, homeowners will drench the environment with pesticides to protect their plants. Literally tons of active ingredients — not formulated material — would be applied to control LBAM.

Everyone has a right to question what CDFA does to control exotic invasive pests, which are being found more often than ever in California. Everyone should also have enough good sense to listen to the answers given to them by qualified, highly trained scientists. CDFA is charged with protecting the state’s agriculture against these invasive pests. CDFA will always use the least invasive, yet most scientifically effective methods available to meet that charge. There will be many more LBAM-like challenges in California because of the growing global nature of our society.

What is disconcerting are actions like those taken by the groups stopping aerial pheromone treatments over urban areas of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties that could seriously jeopardize the future of not only the state’s agriculture, but plant and animal life throughout California. Makes one wonder if some people have enough sense to pour sand from a boot with the instructions written on the heel.

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TAGS: Legislative
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