Do Not Spray: The Little Moth Causing Big Protests

Do Not SprayDoes aerial biochemical spraying really work to control foreign species?  Many communities extensively sprayed pesticides in an effort to control the spread of West Nile Virus, yet mosquitoes quickly spread this disease across the continental United States in just a few short years. Will aerial pesticide spraying combat the spread of the Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM), or is this moth even a threat?

The LBAM is a moth originating in Australia that has been recently found in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. LBAM is also found in New Zealand, New Caledonia, Hawaii, and the British Isles.  The moth does not have a dormancy period and development is continual.  It is artificially spread through nursery plants, fresh produce, and green waste.

California officials fear LBAM poses a potential threat to the state’s agriculture, but their own projections state the greatest environmental impact as:

Establishment of this moth could cause direct environmental damage via increased pesticide use statewide by commercial and residential growers and via adverse feeding impacts on native plants.

That’s right, the pesticide used to control LBAM pose a risk that may be greater than the moth itself. I am all for protecting native plants and our food supply, but certainly there are alternatives to massive aerial spraying in residential areas every 30 days for up to ten years!  In fact, the California Alliance to Stop the Spray reports:

Our collective concern has arisen out of the fact that the light brown apple moth (LBAM) eradication program currently underway in different parts of California utilizes a biochemical pesticide spray that has not undergone formal safety testing by either federal or state agencies, that the spray has never been sprayed on humans before, that the end goal of eradication will likely not be accomplished, and of particular concern, is the lack of an effective adverse effects monitoring system for assessing the potential for adverse human health effects.

Dr. Lawrence Rose, former Senior Public Medical Officer for Cal-OSHA and part of the UCSF Occupational/Environmental Medicine Department, warns, “Immediate short term acute health concerns are to be expected” from aerial spraying in Marin County.  When LBAM aerial spraying occurred in Monterey last fall, residents complained of aches, pains, sniffles, sore throats, fevers and influenza-like symptoms.  An 11-month baby was hospitalized with severe respiratory problems the day after spraying.

Is LBAM really a threat to California’s agriculture? According to Daniel Harder, Ph.D. Executive Director The Arboretum, University of California at Santa Cruz, “LBAM is considered a minor pest that does not cause economically significant crop damage or have detrimental effect on native flora.” The Light Brown Apple Moth has been in Hawaii for more than 100 years, and is not considered by the state to a “significant pest”.  In fact, LBAM may be a biocontrol agent for invasive weeds, such as gorse and blackberry.  Considering the threat is not so great, shouldn’t alternative methods of pest control be used?

In New Zealand, Dr. Harder found that LBAM populations are controlled with natural predators in both agricultural settings and wild lands.  LBAM can be successfully managed with integrated pest management (IPM). In fact, Santa Barbara County plans to use pheromone-infused twist ties to disrupt the mating of LBAM.  Pheromones are highly selective and only target LBAM, as well as pose no substantial environmental or human health threats when applied via twist ties and traps. This sounds like a much more logical approach than massive aerial spraying of herbicides or pheromones that will poison all life below, including sensitive marine life along the California coast.

Eradication of LBAM is not realistic, according to the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA). Given the likelihood of reintroduction of LBAM, PANNA believes:

Sustainable, least-toxic ecological IPM (Integrated Pest Management) is the appropriate response. We encourage CDFA to continue focusing on least-toxic approaches such as pheromones, preditor [sic] wasps, sterile moth release and other biological control and to work with IPM experts and community members in developing a long-term sustainable pest management plan for LBAM.

There are currently five bills that have been introduced in the California Assembly related to this problem.  AB 2892 (Swanson), the Aerial Spray Inform and Consent Act, would require a vote by affected residents before aerial spraying can occur.  AB 2760 (Leno) calls for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before aerial application of pesticides.  AB 2763 (Laird) requires advance planning for invasive species.  AB2764 (Hancock) prohibits aerial spray of urban areas without a governor-declared state of emergency. AB2765 (Huffman) requires disclosure of pesticide ingredients, examination of alternatives to aerial spraying, and a public hearing.  None of these bills require implementation of integrated pest management as the only means for controlling LABM.  Let’s for once chose an approach that matches the problem at hand and not overreact at a cost to our health and environment.

5 thoughts on “Do Not Spray: The Little Moth Causing Big Protests”

  1. This really is a complex issue, and Clayton raises a good point. As far as what is actually being sprayed, there are several problems:

    1. We don’t actually know what’s going to be sprayed on us. The spray used last year over Monterey that elicited 450+ adverse health reports consisted of 2 formulations of CheckMate (CheckMate LBAM-F and CheckMate ORL-F). You can check out the product labels here:

    CheckMate is indeed a pheromone-based pesticide registered with the EPA. Yes, it’s better than conventional insecticides. Does this automatically mean it’s safe? Not on your life.

    2. Suterra, the manufacturer of CheckMate, is reformulating this pesticide for the next round of spraying primarily because the original formulas sprayed over urban populations last year have not worked. That should give us significant pause, and certainly fails to reassure me that the next round of spraying will do the trick.

    3. The only thing we know for sure about the new formulations are that they contain this pheromone, as well as undisclosed “inert” ingredients housed in micro-encapsulated plastic. I can’t speak to the actual health implications of this delivery mechanism, except that it has raised questions among public health officials. What I can say is that CDFA has confirmed that they require all farm workers to vacate the premises before spraying of these formulations occurs over ag areas. Yet there are no such plans for the urban areas that will be exposed to the very same chemicals (this includes high-risk populations like children, elderly, and those with respiratory or autoimmune conditions).

    And this brings me to the last point I’ll make in this particular comment: farm workers have spent decades fighting for work safety and health regulations when dealing with these products. Urban populations have no such legal protections in place. This, combined with the fact that the State immediately declared an “emergency” situation without proper due diligence into the real threat of LBAM, is the ONLY reason aerial spraying over urban populations is even permitted.

    This entire process has been driven by policy makers whose primary interests are Big Business (Suterra, the manufacturer of the spray we will be exposed to, happens to be owned by one of the largest industrial ag businessmen in the state who stands to profit significantly from the spray). There has been NO significant crop damage reported due to LBAM feasting (I just spoke with a California farm industry representative this afternoon who confirmed this). The “emergency” allows the State to bypass environmental and human health procedures, and thus is suspect.

    That’s it. Many of us who oppose the spray believe that the State holds the burden of proof that the spray is safe. They have not done ANY long-term testing on humans for the current formulations of CheckMate, let alone for the new ones (whose ingredients they will not disclose).

    So who’s choice is it? Should the State be allowed to spray an unknown chemical – pheromone-based or otherwise – on an urban population without long-term safety testing? I don’t think so, and well over 20,000 residents and counting agree.

  2. Clayton, I don’t think it is only pheromones. There are additives that are concerning. As far as I know, full disclosure of Checkmate has not been given, but here is a partial list:
    CheckMate LBAM-F partial ingredients list: (E)-11-Tetradecen-1-yl Acetate,
    (E,E) -9,11 Tetradecadien-1-yl Acetate, Crosslinked polyurea polymer,Butylated Hydroxytoluene, Polyvinyl Alcohol, Tricaprylyl Methyl Ammonium Chloride, Sodium Phosphate, Ammonium Phosphate, 1,2-benzisothiozoli-3-one, 2-hydroxy-4-n-octyloxybenzophenone –

    There is also a huge concern about damage to aquatic life where it pools.
    The Toxicity of Checkmate® LBAM-F and Epiphyas postvittana Pheromone to Ceriodaphnia dubia and Fathead Minnow study shows two things.
    1) Checkmate® LBAM-F when it pools up like after rain the high pheromone concentrations will cause 100 % mortality in the tested aquatic life.

    As well as the particulate size for breathing it in
    2)Checkmate® LBAM-F “microcapsules ranged in size from approximately 10 microns to 190 microns”. ALA and EPA agree that esposure to particles of this size (image) and smaller have been linked to serious health ploblems like “increased hospitalization for asthma attacks…slowed lung function growth in children and teenagers” and many more health problems.

    You are correct we have all probably been exposed to pheromones before; I use them to trap coddling moths in my fruit trees. The traps I use our stick traps. I do not spray it, thus it is not airborne and inhaled in my lungs.

  3. It seems to me that those supporting this spraying should be running away in shame with their coats over their heads (both for secrecy and to keep the toxic sprays off of them). I just wonder what kind of incentives i.e. money or equivalent, was offered to legislators to vote for this kind of spraying, and by what organizations.

  4. I think the most important part of this issue is knowing what is actually being sprayed. Aerial pesticide applications are inherently scary, because you don’t really have any control over the area sprayed.

    In this case though, the pesticide is a moth pheromone. This is not a synthetic pesticide. If you go outside, you’ve already been exposed to pheromones, daily, since they’re in the air everywhere.

    The pheromone works by making the male moths unable to located the females, because males pinpoint females by following a pheromone trail.

    It’s pretty much the most benign form of pesticide available, but a classic example of really bad risk communication on the part of California officials.

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