On a clear night in September, the Wilcox family got ready for the airplane that would soon fly overhead and spray a pesticide to fight an invasive moth discovered on the Monterey Peninsula. They shut the windows and stayed indoors.
“I didn’t think much of it. We thought it wouldn’t be harmful,” said Air Force Maj. Timothy Wilcox, who’s enrolled in the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey.
The very next day, the Wilcoxes’ 11-month-old son, Jack, started wheezing. It got so bad, his eyes rolled back in his head, the boy’s father said. The baby spent his first birthday in the hospital on oxygen and medication.
“Jack had been the picture of health, a breast-fed baby who never got sick,” Wilcox said. “We were shocked for this to happen.”
Now the baby takes two physician-ordered drug treatments a day as a precaution against an asthma attack.
The Wilcoxes are one of hundreds of families in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties that reported health problems last year after the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Food and Agriculture ordered an aerial spray of pesticides containing synthetic insect pheromones and other ingredients in a campaign to eradicate the light brown apple moth.
Planes doused houses, decks, yards, cars, city streets – and anybody who happened to be outside. Afterward, some residents complained of shortness of breath, chest tightness, burning in the throat, eye irritation and muscle and headaches, among other symptoms.
In spite of the complaints, U.S. and state agricultural officials say they intend to aerial spray every county in the Bay Area starting in August. They’ll return to Monterey and Santa Cruz counties in June.
California Secretary of Agriculture A.J. Kawamura and federal agriculture officials assert that the pheromone pesticides are safe. Without eradication, they say, the nonnative pest spotted for the first time in the United States in California last year could spread to and damage up to 250 different crops in the state.
Rigorous testing promised This time around, agriculture officials will give state medical experts an opportunity to sign off on a pesticide product before it’s used in aerial spraying, said USDA spokesman Larry Hawkins. There will be more rigorous animal testing on the product, he said.
“If none passes muster, we won’t have any products to use, and we wouldn’t be doing any aerial application,” Hawkins said.
Despite assurances, aerial spraying in California faces steep public disapproval. Santa Cruz County has filed a suit to stop the spraying, and a dozen cities targeted for spraying have passed resolutions against it pending further study.
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, fearing injury to wildlife, has forbidden spraying into its waters. Marin Organic, a Point Reyes Station association of farms and nurseries, supports a moth spray moratorium.
Five state lawmakers have introduced bills to control aerial spraying.
Critics question the safety of pesticide products and whether a full-scale aerial campaign is necessary or would even be effective.