Tracking the elusive Medfly 


Maeve McConnell is the perfect spokesperson for the $17 million government program employing malathion to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly, the destructive little pest threatening Florida’s citrus industry. Not only is McConnell well spoken on the issue, but she also can offer herself as living proof of the pesticide’s low toxicity.

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One day, while helping workers mark an application area with aerial balloons, McConnell herself was sprayed from above with malathion. Pressed for additional evidence of its environmental safety, she can recount her experience like a seal of approval.

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"This is one of the oldest pesticides. It’s probably the most studied. It’s one of the most mild," says McConnell, a spokesperson for the program jointly directed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Florida Department of Plant Industry (http://gnv.ifas.ufl. edu/~entweb/dpibro.htm).

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Even so, she cautions, "You could be splattered with these droplets. You should wash it off."

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Since June 5, malathion has been sprayed in Hillsborough and surrounding counties, where more than 700 Medflies have been trapped. In the process, people breeding fish and other animals, as well as residents -- most notably the organized Citizens for the Responsible Application of Malathion (CRAM) have rallied against the use of helicopters and planes to spray the pesticide.

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On July 11, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reined in pilots who had been flying too close to waterways, declaring nearly 40,000 acres off limits to aerial applications. And in a move away from pesticide use, 300 million sterile Medflies are being gathered at an air base in Tampa; once released, these flies are expected to slow the pests’ reproductive cycle. Budget estimates have risen to $17 million. The weekly expenses: $75,000 for Malathion, $110,000 for sterile Medfly processing.

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This regional issue became local when a single male Medfly was found July 9 in a year-round trap between Zellwood and Plymouth, in a small grove of citrus near the Orlando Country Airport. In response, more than 800 new traps have been deployed in a 81-square-mile area northwest of Orlando. For the next 90 days, workers under the direction of environmental specialist Anthony Capitano will be checking the traps. Should two more males or a pregnant female be found, eradication efforts like those ongoing around Tampa will almost certainly begin in northern Orange County -- and anywhere else the required number of flies is found.

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Ingested in a concentrated form, malathion can be lethal. But insects, such as Medflies, have a much lower tolerance than humans and other animals. The trick is to mix up a spray that will fell the flies, while leaving the rest of us unharmed, officials say.

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Over an acre in Florida, 12 ounces of bait mixture -- 9.6 ounces of corn syrup and 2.4 ounces of malathion --are spread in tiny droplets. To gauge the hazard, officials offer this example: In eating a small amount of dirt sprayed with the mixture, a child would be exposed to only 1/46,000 of the acceptable daily intake.

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"Dose makes the difference. Everything around you is poisonous," says Dr. Mary Jo Hayes, a biological scientist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who draws on about 1,000 research studies that she says agree on malathion’s low toxicity when used in proper dosages.

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Still, a growing clamor has arisen, particularly in Tampa, where CRAM has organized 4,000 members who participate in protests and are raising money for advertising and legal action. The group hopes to convince the Hillsborough County Commission to stop the aerial spraying.

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In making its case, CRAM refers to studies that link malathion to birth defects in turtles, frogs and fish. The CRAM website (http://www.chemtox.com/Malathion) says almost 1,000 gallons of malathion stockpiled for use had been stored in direct sunlight, which even Hayes admits would create an altered, highly toxic form. However, she adds, the program dispenses each resupply in four days -- long before the malathion could heat to the required temperature.

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Hayes, McConnell and other experts have elaborate, well-thought-out answers to every question about apparent hazards. Why, then, do groups like CRAM continue their opposition? "I don’t think anyone trusts the government anymore," says Hayes.


More by Lawrence Budd

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