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Medfly Revives a Tale of Techno-Paranoia

September 10, 1987|BERTRAM WOLFE | Bertram Wolfe, a resident of San Jose, is a specialist in nuclear-systems technologies

The reappearance of Mediterranean fruit flies in the Los Angeles area rekindles memories of the summer of 1981, when anti-Medfly spray helicopters were flying over my San Jose home.

By fall the Medfly invasion had been stopped; our Northern California farm economy and our backyard gardens were saved, and we were spared more drastic and possibly more hazardous actions.

However, it is not the relief of that autumn that remains in my mind, but a gnawing concern about matters that transcend the possible destruction of multibillion-dollar farm crops.

The Medfly experience showed once again that we Californians--we Americans--can rise to an urgent, clearly identified emergency. But it raises the question of whether we have lost the capacity to take actions to avoid a future disaster when technical issues are involved.

The Medfly invasion first manifested itself in Northern California in June, 1980, when flies were discovered in a residential area of San Jose. Programs were put into place to remove fruit from trees and vegetation in about 50 square miles around the infected area; more than 60,000 backyards were ground-sprayed, and 4 billion sterile Medflies were released.

By the summer of 1981 it was clear that the flies had survived in large numbers. There was near unanimity among entomologists that aerial spraying would be needed to eliminate the infestation.

Aerial spraying with malathion bait, although previously successful in other Medfly invasions, was rejected initally in San Jose. However, in July, 1981, when the infestation was shown to be spreading, the state and federal technical experts advising the state Medfly eradication project recommended the immediate start of aerial spraying. But Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., heeding and joining a vocal and effective opposition, refused to initiate it.

The opposition centered on supposed dangers of malathion, but there were other, more political, overtones. The entire issue was characterized by some as giant agribusiness uncaringly endangering lives for profit. Many minority residents who could not afford to leave the spraying area would be adversely affected, some charged. The organized environmental movement claimed that aerial spraying represented "a cynical effort that will poison people, not the Medfly." The Medfly had been magically transformed from a repugnant insect to a political cause.

At the heart of the issue were the possible health effects of the malathion spray. Malathion is a commonly used home-garden and farm insecticide. It was used in the past for eliminating Medfly infestations in other states. In England it has been used as a powder to kill body lice on children. During its 30 years of use, no evidence of health effects have been found with concentrations higher than that proposed for the California spraying. The medical advisers to the Medfly project said that the greatest risk to residents of the area was "unnecessary anxiety."

But anxiety there was. The knowledgeable scientists were not knowledgeable about public communication. Their scientific conservatism and desire for literal accuracy left the impression that there might be unknown dangers. They acknowledged that no one knows everything about anything, and through this crack the anti-spray forces drove their armies of fear.

The San Francisco Bay Area was inundated with television programs and newspaper stories that pitted supposed experts against each other. The inevitable conclusion was that the experts didn't agree on the hazards of malathion. But the qualifications of the "experts" were rarely examined, and the public was not given the perspective that the vast body of informed scientific opinion concurred: In everyday parlance, the malathion spray represented essentially no risk.

The issue was brought to a head by forces outside California. Other states and nations threatened to ban farm imports from California, and then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture John Block threatened to quarantine California's produce. Gov. Brown, claiming that he was "sabotaged" by the federal government, reversed himself and ordered aerial spraying to start. But the drama had not yet ended.

Protest demonstrations, featuring pregnant women and sign-carrying children, occurred throughout the Bay Area. The Red Cross announced that arrangements for more than 1,000 beds had been made for those choosing to evacuate. Three cities and Santa Clara County (San Jose) asked the courts to declare spraying illegal.

It was an early morning in July, following scuffles between ground-support crews and demonstrators, when the first spray helicopter finally took off from a bulldozed hilltop in a cemetery. The public did not panic. Minor technical difficulties were resolved in the weeks to follow, and the Medfly eradication project was carried out efficiently.

Today, however, as I pass the old Medfly project headquarters, it is not the feeling of satisfaction that I recall. Instead, it seems sad but clear that if the life cycle of the Medfly had been years instead of weeks, we would have chosen to leave its legacy to our children.

The important lesson of the Medfly episode is not about flies. It is about our society and the ability of its institutions to handle issues with technical overtones that could affect our very survival. The Medfly experience was characterized by fear, confusion and procrastination. Itis tempting to forget it. If, instead, the experience could be used to prompt a more rational approach to the technical issues of the future, it would be a contribution that would dwarf the elimination of an insect pest.

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