Campaign to Eradicate Moth Could Threaten Cats, Honeybees

Environmentalists say the state's plans to eradicate the light brown apple moth are dangerous, while a former top USDA expert says they simply won't work.

Environmentalists are not only worried about the plan by state officials to renew aerial pesticide spraying for the light brown apple moth. They’re also concerned about some of the state’s other extermination proposals, including a plan to enter people’s backyards to attach pesticide-laced “twist ties” to their trees and shrubs. And perhaps the most troubling proposal by state agricultural authorities is their plan to spray hundreds of thousands of utility poles and trees with an insecticide that is fatal to cats and honeybees and harmful to young children.

Other startling eradication plans by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which is determined to exterminate the light brown apple moth despite convincing evidence that it may be only a minor pest, include breeding and irradiating hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of moths. State officials plan to release the sexually sterile insects throughout Northern and Central California in the hopes that they will disrupt the breeding cycles of fertile moths. “The goal is to produce a minimum of 20 million sterile male moths per day,” states the department’s draft environmental impact report on the planned eradication efforts. The report goes on to say that state officials plan to release an astonishing “500,000 moths per acre” in some areas.

State officials, working at the behest of the US Department of Agriculture, hope to begin implementing the eradication proposals in the next several months as part of the government’s $100 million campaign against the moth. Last week, the public comment period ended on the state’s draft EIR, and officials plan to finalize the environmental report soon. The USDA also recently received the blessing of a panel from the National Academy of Sciences, which said the federal agency was within its legal rights to declare the light brown apple moth a major pest. That panel, however, also strongly criticized the scientific reasoning behind the agency’s decision (see “Shoddy Science,” 9/16/09).

Not only are environmentalists troubled by the state and federal extermination plans, but some leading experts in the field say the proposals are a colossal waste of time and money, and pose unnecessary risks. Derrell Chambers, a former longtime USDA scientist and expert on insect management, told Eco Watch that the eradication plans simply won’t work. “The bottom line is it’s just not possible,” he said of the effort to exterminate the light brown apple moth in California.

Kensington resident Chambers worked for the USDA for 37 years. He was director of the agency’s Agricultural Research Service Center in Gainesville, Florida, which specializes in studying insects. His expertise was the use of pheromones to disrupt insect mating and reproduction. The USDA plans to use pheromones as one of its primary weapons against the light brown apple moth, particularly with aerial spraying and the twist ties. Consequently, Chambers’ strong criticisms of the eradication proposals represent a stinging blow to the agency because of the respect he garnered in the field and his longtime, high-ranking position in the USDA.

Chambers says the primary problem with trying to eradicate the light brown apple moth is that it lives in “microhabitats.” That is, the moth doesn’t fly very far and tends to stay in a defined, forested area with dense brush. It’s also tough to target with pesticides because each moth rolls itself in a leaf during its larval stage. “There’s always going to be refuges where a significant number of moths are going to be unaffected,” Chambers said. As a result, those surviving moths will ultimately lead a resurgence, thereby requiring continued pesticide use in an endless cycle of “eradication.”

The retired entomologist also was critical of the mass-sterilization plan. In order to render moths completely infertile, they have to be zapped with high doses of radiation, he explained. But all that radiation will severely weaken the moths, and thus limit their ability to fly around, find mates, and reproduce. “They’re already a weak-flying insect,” he said, referring to the inability of healthy light brown apple moths to fly more than a few hundred yards. “I just don’t get it. It can’t work.”

And other experts have noted that irradiation itself is typically not 100 percent successful. So if the state plans to produce 100 million light brown apple moths a week, some small percentage of them will remain fertile. For instance, if the radiation treatment fails on just one-tenth of 1 percent of the insects, then the state could produce and release up to 100,000 fertile moths every five days without realizing it. “That’s more moths than the moths they’ve found total so far,” noted Roy Upton, a Santa Cruz-based activist who has closely followed the moth controversy. Chambers recently endorsed an exhaustive scientific literature review that Upton conducted in an effort to convince the USDA to downgrade the light brown apple moth to minor pest status, which would prohibit mass eradication efforts (see “Whitewashing the Moth?” 9/9/09).

But as misguided as the massive moth-radiation program seems to be, opponents say the widespread spraying of a poison that is fatal to cats and honeybees and dangerous to children is over the top. State officials plan to squirt a sticky combination of pheromones and permethrin, an insecticide, on up to 1,200 utility poles and trees per square mile in areas where they find light brown apple moths. Agricultural officials maintain that blanketing urban and suburban neighborhoods throughout the Bay Area, including the East Bay, with gooey “dollops” will be safe because they will be applied at least eight feet off the ground, and so will be above the “breathing zone” of the average person.

However, Upton and other opponents point out that some cats and children like to climb trees, and so could easily come in contact with permethrin — as could honeybees. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies the chemical as a “potential human carcinogen,” and children exposed to it have developed respiratory and immune-system problems. For cats, studies have shown that permethrin nearly always causes severe toxic effects that read like some sort of horror-film script. They include excitability, twitching, tremors, convulsions, vomiting, diarrhea, muscular weakness, respiratory distress, hyper-salivation, and death. In other words, cats that get the poison on their fur or paws and then frantically lick it off, could not only end up dying, but dying horrible deaths.

While the twist ties will be laced with pheromones and not permethrin, the idea of having state officials entering tens of thousands of backyards to hang twist ties on trees and shrubs like Christmas ornaments is not likely to be very popular. The plan is to hang up to 250 of them per acre in a five-mile radius around a moth infestation. So far, the moth has been found in large concentrations in San Francisco and Santa Cruz counties, and smaller concentrations in at least sixteen other counties, including Alameda and Contra Costa. So what happens if homeowners refuse to allow state workers on their property to put up a bunch of toxic twist ties? State officials have yet to say. “There hasn’t been nearly enough disclosure to the public,” said Erin Tobin, a staff attorney at Earthjustice, an Oakland-based environmental group that strongly opposes the state’s plans.

Earthjustice also is concerned about the new pesticide that the state plans to use for aerial spraying. Agricultural officials stopped using the pesticide Checkmate after hundreds of Santa Cruz County residents reported getting sick after the first round of spraying nearly two years ago. The state’s draft environmental impact report describes the new pheromone-based pesticide, Hercon BioFlake, as consisting of small square plastic flakes that contain moth pheromone. But Earthjustice points out the environmental impact report contains no analysis of the potential risks posed to children or animals if they ingest the flakes. “We’re concerned that what children do is when they find things on the ground, they stick those things in their mouths,” Tobin said.

Mike Jarvis, a spokesman for the state agricultural department, said his agency is reviewing the concerns raised by opponents and is “working to find the most safe and efficient program.” But in the draft environmental report, the agency downplays the risks posed by the flakes, maintaining that they will be sprayed only over “forests and chaparral” and agricultural areas. But state officials have yet to disclose exactly where those places will be and how close they will be to more populated areas where children are present. Tobin pointed out, for example, that the state’s description of where it plans to spray the flakes could include the East Bay hills.

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