Fruit Fly Firestorm

Protesters and COLAB Square Off Over Use of Pesticide

by Martha Sadler

A battle over use of the pesticide Naled to fight the Oriental fruit fly turned ugly toward the end of a public hearing on Tuesday before the County Board of Supervisors. Andy Caldwell, perennial spokesman for the powerful Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business, had just spoken in favor of continued Naled use when petitioners against use of the pesticide gel started chanting, “Shame! Shame!” The ordinarily formal Caldwell responded to this surprise attack with kissing noises, provoking one of the anti-Naled activists — who had just recounted her grown daughter’s experience of nausea and shaking, an illness she attributed to the Naled applications — to blurt out, “I hope that one of your children gets poisoned.” All of this caused 2nd District Supervisor Susan Rose, who was participating in the Santa Maria meeting via teleconference, to stop the proceedings momentarily while Caldwell informed her of what “one of your constituents said to me.”

The campaign against the use of Naled has been heating up since late July, when three specimens of the bright yellow, highly destructive fruit fly — Bactrocera dorsalis — were found in a monitoring trap in Hope Ranch. The state’s Department of Food and Agriculture embarked on an eradication effort consisting of the squirting of a gel — infused with Naled and a male-attracting pheromone — on trees within a four-mile radius of the monitoring trap. No fruit flies have been seen since, but according to protesters, some three dozen people believe they have become sick from the pesticide while others have taken hotel rooms to escape what they regard as its toxic menace. Earlier Tuesday, a dozen or more neighbors and their supporters blocked Puente Drive to try to prevent county crews from applying the gel to trees and telephone poles. Athena Foley, owner of a horse ranch on Puente, was cited for obstructing traffic.

Organized as the Pesticide Awareness and Alternatives Coalition (PAAC), protesters complained that CDFA did not follow its own professed protocol, which is to apply the gel in coin-sized dollops 10 feet off the ground. The Puente Drive protesters displayed a photograph of what they claimed was a basketball-sized “monster blob” of the gel, two feet off the ground on a tree near the corner of Via Tranquila and Via Presada, along a bridle trail next to Vieja Valley School. Several of the applications appeared to be about four inches in diameter, and eight feet off the ground. One of Caldwell’s points, however, was that much of the bulk is not the pesticide itself, which he averred was applied at the rate of a mere half-cup per square mile, but the attractant plus inert binding ingredients.

Naled is a Class 1 organophosphate pesticide not recommended for residential use. When Naled is applied agriculturally, protesters pointed out, workers are not allowed to return to the field for 48 hours. It is a neurotoxin, a mutagen, and a carcinogen. Puente Drive neighbors expressed concern about the safety of their water supplies once the gel washes off the trees, in particular the vulnerability of a Goleta Water District well on Puente Drive. Naled has successfully prevented fruit fly infestations in California since 1974 without any confirmed reports of illness or death attributed to it. However, both the PAAC activists and Naled proponents agree that it is difficult to distinguish symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning from flu-like symptoms common to other ailments.

Caldwell painted a grim picture of the consequences should Santa Barbara fail to eradicate the fruit fly, including the aerial spraying of neighborhoods and the destruction of organic farms, which would be forced to use pesticides in order to legally market their produce. This may be an exaggerated scenario, but nobody doubts the fact that Bactrocera dorsalis is a serious threat to agriculture. The PAAC has been intensively researching other methods for controlling it, including the use of predatory wasps, a chemical called spinosad, and a product called Sure-Die. Deputy agricultural commissioner Guy Tingos said his department fully supports alternatives, and Supervisor Rose said she is trying to arrange a town hall meeting in early October with state officials to discuss notification, application protocols, and alternatives. Barring the discovery of more Oriental fruit flies, a final Naled application is scheduled for September 26.

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