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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Due to the latest Mediterranean fruit fly outbreak in Tampa, Florida , the U.S. and Florida Departments of Agriculture are spraying the region with the pesticide malathion from airplanes. Local residents concerns for short and long term health effects are being ignored and the spraying continues. Steve Curwood spoke with Dr. Mohammed Akhter, a physician and executive director of the American Public Health Association , and then to Roger Stewart, executive director of Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Mediterranean fruit flies have infested the area surrounding Tampa, Florida. The insects can wreak havoc on the state's valuable citrus crops, a $5.5 billion dollar industry. So, to fight back, the US and Florida Departments of Agriculture are spraying the region with the pesticide malathion. The spraying started in early June, and officials say it will continue until the weather turns cold. The malathion is being sprayed from aircraft, and Tampa area residents complained that it's landing on more than food crops. Much is winding up on people's homes and yards, and in local lakes and ponds. In the short term, exposure to the pesticide can make people short of breath, nauseous, and give them rashes. But the long-term health effects of malathion aren't known for sure. Mohammed Akhter is a physician and executive director of the American Public Health Association.

AKHTER: We suspect that there could be some effect on decreasing the person's immunity to fight diseases. There could be some congenital effects of long term, and then there could be long-term neurological effects, and we're not quite sure that it's absolutely safe to use in the long term.

CURWOOD: Congenital effects, you mean, if people are exposed to it, the children they have.

AKHTER: The children might have abnormalities as they are developing. I could not outright recommend to anybody to go ahead and spray a large segment of population with the pesticide, obviously that was designed to kill insects, and is going to have some effect on people.

CURWOOD: Water in one Tampa area lake showed levels of malathion 45 times higher than permitted by state law. That didn't surprise Roger Stewart, executive director of Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission, the agency that did the testing.

STEWART: In fact, the information received yesterday indicates that what we are finding is what one would expect with mass aerial spraying over a place with as much water as we have, and incidentally we found levels up to 250 times the standard.

CURWOOD: Two hundred and fifty times the standard! What kind of impact might this concentration of malathion have on wildlife, do you think?

STEWART: Well, I am concerned about what it does to other insect life, beneficial insect life, to minute aquatic organisms of all kinds. I think it is quite lethal to many things in water.

CURWOOD: As I understand it, the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Environmental Protection Agency has some restrictions on where malathion is sprayed. In particular, it's not supposed to be applied within 600 feet of open water. Is that correct?

STEWART: Well, qualify that, 600 feet of significant quote - unquote water bodies. We have a lot of apparently what are insignificant water. There's an awful lot of water in Hillsborough County, a lot of cypress swamps, cypress bayheads, streams, ponds of all kinds.

CURWOOD: Do you think the spraying is in violation of the law? of Florida's laws?

STEWART: Well, technically it violates my local codes. I run a local operation, with its own laws, and based on a state enabling act, so we have quite a bit of authority locally. However, I'm told that the governor of the state of Florida has issued an emergency dispensation, which essentially pre-empts my local action.

CURWOOD: Now, the US Environmental Protection Agency says that malathion is safe. Do you agree? Are you convinced it is?

STEWART: When you say 'safe,' are you talking about human beings? I can't attest to this, I don't have any medical resources here, but I've had lots of reports of children who broke out in all kinds of hive-type reactions, and were hospitalized with respiratory problems, not a lot, but there've been some reports of this. Whether it's coincidental, or is a cause-and-effect, I don't know.

CURWOOD: Mr. Stewart, I'm wondering. Have you been outside when any of this spraying has gone on?

STEWART: Yes, I have. It seems like I get caught on the interstate traffic jam about the time the C-47 is going over. I've got it all over my car right now. And yes, I have been out. I note with some concern the last time they did it, about 10, 12, 14 years ago, little schoolchildren walking by my office in Ebor City, here near Tampa, and the helicopters going over, spraying the kids. I'm concerned that my kids came home, and I don't know where they got it, but they were told that it wouldn't harm them, and that's not true.

CURWOOD: Now, there've been a number of protests by people living in your area, about the spraying. Do you sympathize with them?

STEWART: Yes, I do. This community of roughly a million-plus people is up in arms over this thing, and the reason is the US and State Department of Agriculture's own fault. They came in here like the big gorilla, never called a press conference, never leveled with the local people. And I think, had they been prudent enough to simply take a half a day, call the local people together, say "This is the problem. This is what we see, this is what we have to do, this is how we have to do it," that the people would have suffered a little bit from it, but they would have been more understanding.

CURWOOD: Are you convinced that this spraying is quote - necessary - unquote?

STEWART: I am convinced that the authorities have failed to adequately fund proper and necessary research on alternatives. I am convinced that they have not put enough effort on the surveillance. They didn't report anything until we had flies everywhere, and I think that the surveillance effort was minimal, and certainly inadequate.

CURWOOD: Now, by surveillance, you mean checking to see if there was even a tiny outbreak of medfly.

STEWART: Yeah. If you had enough surveillance, you'd catch 'em when there's just a few, and it's a much easier problem.

CURWOOD: What are the alternatives to using malathion? I mean, obviously, you could let the medfly infestation go, but what else could people do?

STEWART: Okay, obviously, there is now the use of sterile males, who breed with the viable females and nothing happens, and this is a control that I'm told has been widely used in California. There is now talk locally of setting up a sterile medfly-raising operation at McDill Air Force Base, here in Tampa, and hopefully spreading these sterile males around pretty uniformly, so that they are a nice, safe control. Again, I find it inconceivable that over the last 20-30 years, that the USDA has not sponsored enough research on the alternatives, and we should still have to keep using malathion.

CURWOOD: Roger Stewart is executive director of Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission. He spoke with us from his office in Tampa.



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