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.
Tags: journalism, pheromones, apple moth, cynicism
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