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JOSEPH N. BELL

Hornet's Nest Over Fly Spray

March 08, 1990|JOSEPH N. BELL

Some years ago, when the nation was debating the propriety and safety of atomic testing in the atmosphere with the same fervor that Orange Countians are today debating malathion spraying, I was assigned by a national magazine to explore the arguments on both sides with their two major proponents: Dr. Edward Teller, who favored the testing, and Dr. Linus Pauling, who opposed it.

I spent the better part of a day with each man. Teller told me the fears of contamination were unfounded and the benefits to be derived from such testing far outweighed any possible danger. Pauling painted a bleak picture of disease and death that would befall the human race if testing were continued.

Two Nobel laureates. Two opposite positions.

At the end of the second day, I said to Pauling, in considerable frustration: "My job is to convey to laymen like myself the best available expertise on this subject so they will have a factual base for taking a position. But I have just finished talking at great length with two of the world's most renowned scientists, and you have taken positions 180 degrees apart. Now who in the hell are we supposed to believe?"

And Pauling smiled his elfin smile and said, "Who did you like the best?"

That's precisely the same problem facing Orange Countians over malathion today. We're barraged with technical data and emotional pleas on both sides of the issue. Here's just a sampling of what we've been hearing and reading:

* Dr. Roy Cunningham, chairman of the California Department of Food and Agriculture's science advisory panel, writes in The Times: "Malathion is one of the oldest and most widely used of pesticides. It is the active ingredient in numerous home and garden preparations. It has also in certain cases been applied to cats and dogs and used to treat humans for head lice. . . . Our options are few. To live with the Medfly would involve millions of dollars in losses and much more pesticide use in California. Do we really want that?"

But Times reporter Maura Dolan counters that ". . . in Hawaii, Central America, Israel and elsewhere, the permanent establishment of the Medfly has not meant wholesale destruction of farming. And in some cases, agriculture has actually prospered alongside the pest." And a Pasadena cancer specialist said the other day: "Not only is it not proven safe . . . but we should question the aerial spraying of a potent carcinogen like benzene in an urban environment."

* State Health Director Kenneth W. Kizer says that the risk of a helicopter crash is greater than any health hazard offered by the malathion. But a 1981 Medfly study found that helicopters often miss their mark and spray about one-fourth of their malathion cargo outside the target areas, thus contradicting repeated assurances from state and local officials.

* Central California grower Sarkis Sarabian tells a Times reporter that unless the Medfly is controlled, "I'm going to lose a way of life. Maybe that's nothing big to anyone else, but it means something to me. . . (If the spraying stops) it may mean no jobs up here, but it'll also mean no jobs for people in L.A."

But a deeply concerned father living in a spraying area writes to The Times: "Public officials ask us to trust them on malathion, but I cannot. Until a new study is done by politically objective scientists on the way spraying is conducted in Los Angeles and until such a study provides compelling evidence of health safety, I say no more spraying. For the sake of my children, no more spraying."

In such a fix--when even experts don't agree--we turn to expertise in other fields for guidance. To that end, I found social ecology Prof. Elaine Baugham at UC Irvine. Baugham, who has a doctorate from Stanford in psychology, specializes in studies on toxic risks and public perception of them.

"The biggest problem in the malathion controversy," she told me, "is that the experts and the public are weighing different dimensions. The public asks, 'What if such-and-such happens?' and the scientists offer quantitative answers that don't speak to that question.

"We ask too much of science and technology. They can estimate risks, but that's all. They can tell us there is one chance in a million or 10 million, but we look to science for certitude, and they can't give us that. It is very difficult for a scientist to say there is no element of risk. And when scientific information is conflicting, that's simply the nature of science--like going to two different doctors for opinions.

"But having said that, I want to stress that I don't believe the public is irrational in its opposition to this spraying. Their objections are not based solely on emotion. They are saying, 'We're involved here.' And they still remember being badly burned on thalidomide and DDT and the DES hormone, which were all presented to them as being safe.

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