Nuke the moths!

Ballard protests the Department of Agriculture's plan for aerial spraying to prevent a gypsy moth infestation.

ON A DARK DAY in late December 1998, the freighter Navarin slipped its moorings in the Russian port of Vladivostok and set course for Seattle, Washington. And with it, after a number of years out of the spotlight, came the return of the gypsy-moth menace. Last March, US Department of Agriculture inspectors discovered a moth "egg-mass" while checking out the confiscated Russian freighter at its berth in Ballard.

The eggs were destroyed and the ship fumigated. But sure enough, on August 18, one live male moth was discovered in a trap at 24th NW and Shilshole. Washington State Department of Agriculture experts went into a huddle and on January 26 of this year proclaimed an "infestation."

One bunch of eggs and one moth: an infestation? Reasoning that where there's one moth, there may be others, the WSDA has fielded a plan to spray three areas near Puget Sound, including more than a square mile of Ballard and Magnolia Bluff. If nothing blocks the plan, three rounds of aerial spraying seven to 14 days apart will take place between late April and early June. The program is estimated to cost $300,000.

WSDA experts say that's a small price to pay to prevent the moth from taking up permanent residency. The European gypsy moth has done a lot of damage to forests in the Northeast US since it was introduced in the 1860s. The Asian variety discovered on the Navarin could have a potentially greater impact here, where timber is still a major economic resource.

WSDA also says that the method it's chosen to wipe out any potential moths before they can multiply is all but harmless. It's a variety of the familiar microorganism Bacillus thuringensis, which kills moth larva by destroying their digestive systems. In its press release announcing the program, WSDA says that "btk" is "commonly used by gardeners and organic farmers" and that it "has a proven safety record with people, pets, livestock, birds, fish, and other insects such as bees."

What about other moths? Uh-oh: WSDA admits that the bacillus is just as effective at wiping out all lepidoptera, including harmless and beneficial moths and butterflies as well. As for the "proven safety" record, that turns out to be a little misleading, too. WSDA spokesman John Lundberg cites a state Health Department study that says btk is not known to cause any "infection or disease" in mammals.

In its own literature, the Health department concedes that btk does have an impact on "individuals who may be susceptible to opportunistic infections," including those with leukemia and AIDS—anyone with lower immune response, in fact—and asthma. Their solution? Go ahead and spray, but make sure everybody stays inside for at least half an hour after spraying, that all shrubs, grass, and trees are completely dry before letting children near them, that hands are washed thoroughly after every contact with vegetation, or, for the eyes, a 15-minute flushing with running water.

Not surprisingly, resistance to the proposed air raids is rising in Ballard and Magnolia, where the long-term economic interests of McMillan Bloedel and Weyerhaeuser loom less large than family health. A vigorous e-mail/Web site/leaflet campaign against the spraying is already under way: WSDA had better not count its egg-masses before they hatch.

The gypsy moth in history, biology, and medicine at http://www.fsl.wvu.edu/gmoth/.

For a thorough study of known health effects of btk on insects, mammals, and other lifeforms, visit http://www.rage.org.nz/bt-science.html.

Hard to believe it, but WSDA has no web page devoted to informing the public of the gypsy-moth menace, though one is said to be in development. However, the spraying programs opponents generously provide a not-too-slanted precis of the Departments position at http://www.msgbd.com/forums/ballard/wsda/index.html. See also the page on local efforts to combat the WSDA's spraying program.

Or pick up the phone and call the WSDA's "gypsy-moth hotline" at (800) 443-6684.

 
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