Poisonous Politics


To the rest of the country, California's obsession with the Mediterranean fruit fly must seem awfully silly. In 1982, then-Gov. Jerry Brown destroyed any chances his campaign for the U.S. Senate may have had by delaying aerial spraying of the pesticide malathion on areas infested by the Medfly. But these days public sympathy has turned. Opposition to malathion spraying is very strong and seems to be growing. In February, Pasadena police helicopters chased the choppers sent up by the state and tried to arrest the people spraying malathion over that city.

California politics may seem like a battle between strange ideas and even stranger personalities. But if California politics is unusual, it is only because it seems to be ahead of the curve.

When Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1966, people thought Californians were crazy for putting a B-movie actor in the state's highest office. Twenty-three years later, an enormously popular President Reagan ended his political career after two terms in the nation's highest office.

In 1978, Howard Jarvis probably seemed to many to be just a colorful character with a wacky idea. But soon after California voters approved his Proposition 13, people all over the nation demanded that their taxes be cut.

California's Medfly policy—or, more accurately—its pesticide policy may be its next political export. But the rest of the country should be wary of this product; it may not be as benign as the tax revolt.

The state agriculture department says that the Medfly could destroy $230 million worth of fruit each year if it isn't eradicated. Of course, we might ask why taxpayers should foot the bill for aerial spraying, instead of the farmers whose crops are in danger. But no one is asking that question.

Instead, there is growing opposition to any spraying.

There is a consensus among toxicologists that malathion, at the dosages being sprayed, will not affect humans. Indeed, malathion is commonly used by backyard gardeners at much greater concentrations with no serious side effects.

But an irrational fear of chemicals seems to have taken root in California. In 1986, voters approved Proposition 65, a truly amazing "toxics" labeling law. Common chemicals were designated as toxic, and any business using them, even in minute amounts, was required to post a big sign warning customers of the dangers. As a result, service stations, grocery stores, restaurants, and even banks now are labeled as places hazardous to our health. One is left to wonder whether any place is safe.

Trying to convince people that there are actually safe levels of pesticides seems to be a task that is growing more difficult daily.

Unfortunately, this attitude is not confined to California. Remember last year's Alar controversy? A handful of media-savvy Chicken Littles was able to convince millions of Americans that a relatively benign chemical had turned apples into instruments of death.

It certainly seems that one of the big issues in American politics in the 1990s will be toxic chemicals and how we deal with them. Will we adopt a rational approach that weighs the benefits and risks of chemicals on a case-by-case basis? Or will we be stampeded into trying to eliminate all chemicals, no matter how small the danger or how large the benefits? How California decides to deal with the Medfly may set the tone for the rest of the nation.