When the jets flew into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, the volume on fear in this country was cranked way up, much of it with the intention of manipulating us and unfortunately with considerable success. One of the cooler heads was Mr. Rogers. What he told children (and adults who were smart enough to listen) was “Pay attention to the helpers.”
In a society dominated by the culture of expertise, that’s really good advice. For well over a century, what governments do in the name of public health and environmental protection has been shaped and administered by experts informed by science. Being anointed as an expert can be a highly political process, particularly when the government’s actions affect commerce. Likewise, what counts as science is highly political when powerful business interests are at stake.
Large sections of Santa Cruz County are being sprayed from airplanes with a chemical intended to control the light brown apple moth. This little guy was of such concern to large agricultural interests and the experts at the California Department of Food and Agriculture that they persuaded Governor Schwartzenegger to declare an emergency—not that it took much. What that meant was that the Food and Ag department didn’t have to go through the cumbersome process of performing an environmental review before Santa Cruz got bombarded.
Concerned citizens raised a fuss. Although the aerial spraying was postponed, these citizens—several of whom contacted us for help—ultimately lost. A core issue for these citizens is the health effect of the repeated overhead spraying that the Food and Ag department is conducting.
The active chemical used is a pheromone that keeps the light brown apple moth from reproducing. It’s a substance commonly used to control the moth. However, the normal use is to tie little moth traps to trees not spray it all over the place. When sprayed from planes, the pheromone is delivered with so-called inert substances that cause the pheromone to be released over time. The product is called CheckMate.
Citizens were very concerned about these supposedly inert ingredients. The Food and Ag department first would not release that information citing trade secrets. CheckMate’s manufacturer Suterra threatened to sue anyone who published the information. But finally the Food and Ag department relented. First they said one of the ingredients was toxic. Then they corrected themselves and said the substance wasn’t toxic. The department and the governor continued to maintain that there was an emergency, after all, and besides there wasn’t anything in CheckMate to worry about.
One of the best technical responses to all of this came from a syndicated column called Ask the Bugman. Two weeks ago, someone from Santa Cruz asked about the spraying. The Bugman said it was a bad idea for many reasons, including one inert ingredient that “According to the Pesticide Action Network North America … is considered “moderately toxic” to insects, “highly toxic” to fish, and “very highly toxic” to zooplankton.”
That got the Food and Ag department’s underwear in a twist. Their PR guy Steve Lyle wrote the Bugman and his editor demanding corrections. Among other things, Mr. Lyle pointed out that the principle inert ingredient is urea, a common and harmless substance. In his column, the Bugman cites the OSHA Material Safety Data Sheet for urea. Turns out that it’s not so harmless after all, especially from exposures like aerial spraying.
The Bugman went on to describe how he “asked him [Mr. Lyle] about the people who are getting sick after the initial spraying of this noxious material. He said he tells people to go to the doctor if they get sick. That’s it? Go to a doctor?”
To back up to the beginning, this is a spraying program forced on Santa Cruz because there’s a supposed agricultural emergency. Yet from what I’ve read, there’s little evidence of impending disaster. For example, Hawaii has had the light brown apple moth for 100 years. No disasters. And the moth helps control other pests.
And if you think this is just about something bad happening in Santa Cruz, think again. Next year the Food and Ag department’s bombardment campaign is coming to all the counties surrounding the San Francisco Bay.
The Bugman is an expert. He’s a board certified entomologist at the University of New Mexico. He’s a helper. The experts at the Food and Ag department are not.