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Dodging deadly droplets

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In 1984, John Harris says he became sick with flulike symptoms after malathion was sprayed over the University of Southern California campus. Five years later, he grew ill again after the pesticide was sprayed over his home near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles.

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During the 1980s and early 1990s, California spent more than $300 million spraying the insecticide over urban areas of the city to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly." I lived through it. I saw it first hand," says Harris, an actor now living in Orlando.

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While sterilized male Mediterranean fruit flies are now being used to stem the pest’s infestation in California, malathion is being sprayed less than 30 miles from downtown Orlando as a result of the discovery of four male Medflies in an abandoned citrus grove near the Orlando Country Airport.

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Citing more than 1,000 studies agreeing on the safety of malathion, Florida and federal officials insist there is no reason for alarm at its use on behalf of the state’s citrus industry. But Harris recalls Southern Californians protesting the spraying the insecticide on Los Angeles neighborhoods. "Even though you go inside, when you come back out, you have to be very, very careful," he says.

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Last week, the Winter Park-based Florida Audubon Society joined the Tampa-based Citizens for Responsible Application of Malathion (CRAM) in questioning the state’s program, which has already spent $17 million spraying -- and now releasing sterile Medflies -- in Hillsborough County.

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"I don’t know of any other industry we allow to wholesale spray poisons over our neighborhoods," says Audubon President Clay Henderson, whose car was sprayed twice recently while waiting at a traffic light in Tampa.

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In a letter to Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Bob Crawford, the Audubon Society says aerial spraying could wipe out "beneficial" species, such as bees and aquatic organisms. To gain control of the issue, Audubon wants Crawford to set up a task force to coordinate public-information efforts "to prevent the confusion and concern that spreads due to lack of readily available information." Henderson also calls for more research regarding alternatives to pesticide use and a bait targeted to Medflies, a state effort to stock up on sterile Medflies, better import and trapping programs, as well as a method to recoup millions of dollars in expenses from Florida agriculture businesses benefiting from the programs.

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"This is going to continue. They’re going to have to get ahead of this curve fast," Henderson says. Otherwise the state is "at serious risk of losing public support for its programs because of the controversy."

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On July 23, officials found three more male flies in traps in the same abandoned grove where the discovery of a single male two weeks before had triggered the Orange County operation. None has since been discovered.

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Weekly aerial sprayings on a one-mile square drawn from the grove have been supplemented by ground sprayings on July 24 in Zellwood Station, a nearby retirement community, and July 25 and July 26 on a tract bounded on the north by West Ponkan Road, the south by Fudge Road, the east by Plymouth-Sorrento Road, and the west by Zellwin Circle. While confirming the spray could wipe out "beneficials," such as bees and grasshoppers, Maeve McConnell, spokesperson for the state program, says, "With the number of insects out there, the void is refilled very quickly." Residents "don’t need to do anything" other than wash fruit to avoid getting sick. "Unless someone’s going to eat the leaves off their trees, I don’t see there’s going to be much of a problem," McConnell says. Still residents are notified before the sprayings, she says.

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Assuming no more Medflies are found, spraying in Orange County will cease in four weeks. Traps will be checked for four months.

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While hopeful the Medflies were confined to the grove, McConnell says similar steps, including spraying, would be taken if three males or a pregnant female were found elsewhere in the county. Sterile flies, which have replaced spraying around Tampa, won’t be used here. While more costly, the steriles also are in short supply, McConnell says.

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That is largely because, rather than spraying, California -- which hasn’t found any Medflies in two years ... is releasing 450 million sterile ones a week to mate with wild intruders, hopefully preventing infestations. If this fails, an experimental red dye could replace malathion, now "considered a last-option alternative" in California.


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