Saturday, October 27, 2007

A fear of pheromones

The following news item has me somewhat steamed:

Ban on Calif. Pesticide Spraying Lifted
The spraying of a pesticide to fight a crop-eating moth can resume after a judge said Friday he was satisfied with a government plan to address environmental and health concerns.

Earlier this month, Judge Robert O'Farrell issued a temporary injunction against the spraying on California's central coast amid concerns over the long-term health effects of CheckMate, which was first dropped in the area last month.

CheckMate is a pheromone spray developed specifically to keep the moth from mating without killing it.

The problem, of course, is that a pheromone is not a pesticide (such as DDT or any other). In common English usage the Latinate suffix "-cide" means killing something or someone. (E. g. "suicide", "genocide", "fratricide".) Pheromones do not kill, either moths or anything else (to the best of anyone's knowledge).

Why is this a problem? Because (in my opinion) it is irresponsible science journalism. And it has consequences. I happen to live in the affected area, and I know there is a lot of heated opposition to this spraying. But I think the opposition is misguided. People are up in arms because they have this general fear of the aerial spraying of strange "chemicals". And it is especially unhelpful for "journalists" and news agencies like the Associated Press, which ought to know better, to be putting out releases that misclassify pheromones as "pesticides".

To be sure, there might still be human or animal health issues associated with the spraying of pheromones. There are certainly some people who are sensitive or allergic to a lot of "chemicals". I do not know for sure whether there are such issues in this case, although it is claimed that "numerous state and federal agencies tested the product and all its ingredients and determined it was safe."

But I do know that the journalism in this case is seriously flawed, and is probably causing a lot of people to worry when they should not need to, simply by calling the pheromones "pesticides", when they are not that at all. Sometimes, not always, chemical sensitivities are psychosomatic. And this is much more likely if the chemicals involved are incorrectly called "pesticides".

Here's a press release from the US Department of Agriculture that says a bit more about the pheromone in question:

New Pheromone Sprayer Leads Amorous Moths Astray
For decades, apple and pear growers have "adorned" their orchards with hundreds of plastic dispensers that emit a chemical sex attractant, or pheromone, to disrupt codling moth mating. Now, thanks to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) studies in Wapato, Wash., growers could soon be spraying the pheromone instead.

Sadly, the Associated Press, even a few days later, was still putting out faulty journalism:

Gov. orders resumption of disputed apple moth pesticide spraying

Something the general population certainly doesn't need is more media confusion about scientific subjects from sources that demonstrate a lack of trustworthiness – and contribute to popular cynicism about journalism in general.

Update (1/18/08): This sort of journalistic malpractice continues: Calif. residents say moth spray dangerous
Residents of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties filed 330 formal complaints to the state related to the light brown apple moth insecticide spraying, and about 300 more complained to doctors or public interest groups, said a report by the California Alliance to stop the Spray, the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Sentinel reported Sunday.

And the same brief article also refers to the pheromone as a "pesticide". Does this sort of incompetence matter? Of course it does. It's quite likely that most of the complainers are reacting to journalistic reports of "pesticides" and "insecticides" rather than what was actually used. Sort of an inverse placebo effect. Misinform people that they've been sprayed with a "poison", and of course some will feel ill. Is it possible there was some real effect? Sure. Whatever substance is involved – including any number that are "organic" or "natural" yet allergenic – there are bound to be at least a few people who might have an adverse reaction. But this can only be greatly magnified by sloppy journalism.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

As exec. VP of the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers (CANGC) with dozens of affected nurseries, growers, and retail garden centers in the Santa Cruz-Monterey area, I applaud you pointing out the irresponsible and continuing misclassification of pheromones as pesticides and insecticides. This is a real hot button for me, since it causes real fear in many people. Though the aerial sprayings have ceased, it's lingering effects will certainly cause the next pest outbreak to be accompanied by these false classifications and misrepresentations. It's difficult to believe that the journalists of the Associated Press and local newspapers in such an agricultural-intensive area really are ignorant of their actions, and we invite everyone who wants more information about the real science of the safe pheromone compounds used against light brown apple moth to come to our website and get more information, or to call us.

Robert Dolezal
Exec. VP
(916) 928-3900

8/25/2008 10:30:00 AM  
Blogger Charles Daney said...

It's difficult to believe that the journalists of the Associated Press and local newspapers in such an agricultural-intensive area really are ignorant of their actions

Unfortunately, all too many people who call themselves "journalists" no longer really practice the profession, by doing any serious research on a story which affects so many people's lives.

I guess they're just too accustomed to churning out stories about the latest spectacular crime or traffic accident or celebrity scandal, where little actual knowledge is needed.

The sad truth is that so many people, including journalists, know so little science that they cannot understand even simple things like the difference between a pheromone and a "pesticide".

Even more sadly, many news organizations, and the Associated Press is one, mishandle other types of news just as badly, including politics and government.

Now, the AP does have some very good bylined writers doing quality work on topics like medicine and climate change. However, they also have too many writers who are just plain uninformed and unwilling to learn.

8/26/2008 02:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Pheromone said...

I'm in full agreement with you Charles, sometimes I just wish people would be held accountable in some way for what they write.

8/06/2010 03:23:00 AM  

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