THE City of Angels is seeing an unprecedented uprising over the spraying of a malathion, a pesticide used to control the Mediterranean fruit known as the medfly. Residents say the spraying, with helicopters flying low over their homes, is disturbing. They are also concerned that malathion may be harmful to their health - although no long-term studies on the pesticide's health effects have been conducted.
The spraying was started by the state Department of Food and Agriculture last July and has met with growing opposition since November. The state is spraying more than 383 square miles, trying to halt the spread of the medflies before they can hit the Central Valley farmland.
This is not the first time spraying has been an issue. When a single medfly was found in 1980, a year of debate about how to deal with the pest followed. By the time then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. ordered aerial spraying, the infestation was huge. The delay is blamed for costing the farm industry $100 million, as well as Mr. Brown's loss to Pete Wilson in the 1982 Senate race.
This time the spraying followed quickly upon discovery of the pest. Just as quickly, the popular outcry has followed the onset of spraying.
The Los Angeles City Council filed a lawsuit last month asking for a temporary injunction to the spraying until its use is proved safe. In addition, state Sen. Art Torres (D) filed a state initiative that would set up new criteria for pesticide spraying programs.
The National Resource Defense Council filed a lawsuit last month against Gov. George Deukmejian, the state Department of Food and Agriculture, and the boards of supervisors of Los Angeles and Orange Counties to stop the spraying. Twelve state legislators, all Los Angeles-based, have joined the suit. At least 12 cities have filed some kind of action against the spraying.
In one of the most dramatic examples, Pasadena passed an ordinance that forbade aircraft from flying in formation below 700 feet to try to keep state helicopters from spraying. The city sent its own police helicopters to warn the state's choppers they were breaking the law. A potential aerial dogfight was resolved after state helicopters politely acknowledged the city's warning - then went on spraying. Now Pasadena is taking the state to court.
Everywhere the helicopters have flown, citizens' groups have formed in protest, many of them by at-home mothers. Lisa Mills works with Families Opposed to Chemical Urban Spraying (FOCUS). ``When we started taking calls a month ago, people were a little concerned, asking if they could do anything. Now they're really angry,'' she says.
The health effects of the spraying have been long debated. ``We held a hearing asking experts on both sides to testify,'' Pasadena Vice Mayor Jesse Hughston says. ``There's no question that the evidence is not clear either way.'' A warning to doctors by health department officials in Los Angeles and Orange Counties said there were no serious effects from general exposure, but direct exposure might result in some irritation.
A Los Angeles Times poll found that 20 percent of residents surveyed in Los Angeles and Orange County complained of health problems due to the pesticides. The state Department of Health has recently formed a committee of health-care professionals to research the health question.
Nearly 20 citizens' groups met last week to strengthen their forces, Mrs. Mills says. And their rising chorus is having some reaction. The Department of Food and Agriculture plans to decrease the spraying and follow it up with releases of sterile medflies. The state is also planning on raising more of these sterile flies which breed the medfly out of existence.
``The decision to increase the production of sterile medflies is in response to citizens' concerns,'' says Isi Siddiqui, assistant director of the Department of Food and Agriculture.
The protests are making Central Valley agriculturists nervous. Economists estimate that losses from the infestation could range from $227 million to $556 million. ``The growers are confused as to why there is such an uprising when they feel the medical facts are in place to support the spraying,'' says Debbie Goff, manager of Alliance for Food and Future. ``Here is a public that's telling them to slow down their use of pesticides on produce so farmers have been doing that. If they can't use the very, very small amount of malathion sprayed on cities, the farmers will have to use stronger and much larger amounts of pesticides on their crops to protect them.''
Recently the Alliance for Food and Future, which researches food safety issues for growers and the public, commissioned a survey to find out how strong the opposition was and how much information people had about the situation. It found that while half the residents surveyed in Los Angeles and Orange Counties opposed spraying malathion over neighborhoods, three-quarters would support the program if the pesticide were proved safe.
``There is information out there.'' Ms. Goff says. ``The people that receive the information indicate that they will put up with the malathion spray.''
Sixteen percent, however, said they would disapprove of spraying even if it were found safe. That's because people do not trust what the agriculturists say anymore, Mills says. ``Because of DDT and Agent Orange which people were told were safe, the state is not credible anymore.''
The opposition stems as much out of a sense of helplessness as it does over health risks, says Mary Nichols, a senior staff attorney with the National Resources Defense Council. ``This is something their state government is doing to them without asking their consent and without justifying reasons for it.''
Mr. Siddiqui acknowledges there were no public hearings before the state began spraying. ``If we waited or had done an environmental impact report, the infestation would have grown.''