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Concern in the air

Monterey County residents have a right to know what's in the aerial pesticide they're breathing.

October 19, 2007

There's something in the air in Monterey County, and it isn't the ocean breeze. Residents say they're being sickened after the state approved an aerial pesticide spraying program -- and it won't reveal what chemicals they're being forced to breathe.

The state says it has no choice because it is bound by law to protect the trade secrets of the pesticide's maker. If that's the case, it points up a serious problem with trademark law. This isn't the recipe for McDonald's special sauce or the secret formula for Coca-Cola; consumers do not have to ingest those if they don't want to. But it's tough to escape chemicals when they're applied from the air over 60 square miles.

Targeting the crop-threatening light brown apple moth, the state began spraying the pesticide, called Check-Mate, over parts of Monterey County last month. The advocacy group Helping Our Peninsula's Environment, which has filed suit against the state, says more than 100 people complained of breathing difficulties, rashes and stomach illnesses. Now it wants to know which chemicals are used in the pesticide. And if the state's hands are tied, the group maintains, then a court ruling or legislation is needed to unshackle them.

The state's response? Trust us. It's enough that state officials and the Environmental Protection Agency have declared that Check-Mate is safe for humans.

But Californians have a right to be skeptical. Pesticides, as labor leader Cesar Chavez once said, have "created a legacy of pain, and misery, and death for farm workers and consumers alike." Further, even when safeguards are in place, accidents happen. A recent state report on pesticide illnesses found that hundreds of residents were exposed to a fumigant that drifted into a suburban neighborhood in 2005 -- in Monterey County.

As for the EPA, just days ago, over the objections of dozens of distinguished scientists and Nobel laureates, the agency green-lighted a pesticide that mutates human DNA. Methyl iodide, scientists warned the agency, can drift into neighborhoods and seep into groundwater. Yet that neurotoxin is undergoing a trial at U.S. farms.

One solution would be for Check-Mate's maker, Oregon-based Suterra, to reveal its formula. During the Medfly infestation of the L.A. basin in the 1990s, Cheminova, a firm based in Denmark, authorized the state to identify ingredients in its malathion spray. AgrEvo Environmental Health and Exxon Chemical Co. did the same when their products were used to treat Lake Davis in 1997.

These companies not only avoided endless bad publicity but quieted public calls for legislation that would force them to reveal their formulas. If Suterra wants to prove itself sensitive to Californians' concerns and avoid a Sacramento-based solution, it would do well to follow suit.

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