IT'S HARD to write about Washington state's annual jihad against that insidious foreign agent the Asian gypsy moth without thinking about the allied struggle to secure the ground in Afghanistan. Both campaigns have helicopters employed to rain death and destruction on areas where the enemy is suspected to be lurking. And both can engender plenty of "collateral damage."
In Afghanistan, some innocent shepherd (or village) may be standing between the bad guys and retribution. In Crown Hill, it's the folks who live in the six-square-block area between Northwest 80th and Northwest 83rd streets and Eighth and 10th avenues Northwest who're going to be sprayed with a finely divided oil suspension of Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki (Btk).
Oh, come off it, say the folks in the Washington state Department of Agriculture (WSDA) who do the spraying; Btk is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that is toxic only to moths and related genera, and no one has ever shown that it can affect the health of humans or other mammals. Besides, the department asserts that the "lead agency for this proposal has determined that it does not have a probable adverse impact on the environment."
Well, maybe, but residents of Crown Hill (and the Lewis County hamlet of Vader, due for their second annual dose of Btk) might feel more confident about the above "determination of nonsignificance" if the lead agency mentioned were, say, the state Department of Health or Ecology rather than—you guessed it—the Department of Agriculture itself.
No one denies that gypsy moth larvae are serious pests, capable of defoliating whole forests if left unchecked. And nobody denies that Btk is preferable to synthetic pesticides like Orthene, which it replaced nearly 50 years ago. What infuriates opponents of Btk spraying is the assertion that there's no evidence that the product is environmentally harmful.
At the federal as well as the state level, the departments of agriculture control gypsy moth research and policy, so it's hardly surprising that funding has been directed toward annihilating by bug, not assessing the public health side effects of the annihilation.
What's inexcusable is that said authorities refuse to consider outside research when the findings don't agree with established pro-spray policy. Such evidence has been accumulating for years, to the point that the authorities' professed ignorance of its existence can only be willful.
One of the more shocking wake-up calls arrived just in time for spray season 2000, when a Norwegian environmental lab published findings that harmless old Btk was, in fact, genetically indistinguishable from two other bugs—B. cereus, which causes severe intestinal problems in humans, and B. anthracis, better known these days as anthrax—apart from some loops of DNA specifically designed by evolution to be portable from one strain of bug to another.
At this point, nobody knows if the various B.'s trade virulence factors in nature or only in the lab. The point is: Except for those Norwegians, nobody seems to be trying to find out, certainly not anybody funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Nor is the USDA rushing to fund further research by scientists who have recently published evidence that
*far from vanishing swiftly after application, Btk toxins persist in some soils for up to six months, and
*far from killing only moths (and butterflies—sorry, but you can't make an omelet . . . ), it also kills a huge range of other insects and soil organisms, while
*far from producing nothing toxic to humans, some commercial strains used as insecticides make the same diarrhea-producing toxin as B. cereus.
The research just cited (going back as far as 1995) was published in journals like the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology, Soil Biology & Biochemistry, and the Federation of European Microbiological Societies' Immunology and Medical Microbiology—reputable journals all, but not ones likely to turn up on the average citizen's coffee table. If the responsible authorities refuse to read and take into consideration such work when developing public policy, who is going to?
Fortunately, scientifically literate citizens of the spray-targeted areas like Boeing engineer Claude Ginsburg of Magnolia's No Spray Zone group have been doing their homework, collecting and publicizing the other side of the Btk story. So far, their efforts have met with the usual wall of silence from WSDA.
Why would a public agency be so resistant to considering changing a policy that hasn't been significantly revised for 40 years? Sheer bureaucratic inertia, sure, and unwillingness to let outsiders joggle its elbow. But there is an economic interest also: WSDA has a well-established little division devoted to the moth menace, with its own well-established connections to pesticide suppliers, crop-spraying companies, vehicle-leasing firms, seasonal moth-trapping troops, etc. At a couple million a year, gypsy moth control may be small change, but with the job market the way it is, every job counts, especially when it's your own. Gentlemen: Start your engines.
Roger Downey's science column appears every other week.