SOQUEL — As the state prepares to spray the Bay Area with pesticides to fight an invasive moth, local officials are worrying not only about the potential impact on human health, but on local commerce as well.
State environmental health experts announced last week that illnesses reported by hundreds of residents after the first round of aerial spraying on California's central coast couldn't conclusively be linked to the pest eradication effort.
Still, public uncertainty alone could slow summer tourism, drive residents out of town and cause real estate agents to ask clients if they want to buy property in the proposed spray zone, local officials say.
"If there's spray residue on the grass, are people going to feel safe going to Golden Gate Park?" asked Mark Westlund, a spokesman for San Francisco's Department of the Environment. "Tourism is what keeps this city floating, and if people are worried about coming here because they could get sprayed on, that could have an impact."
Last fall, state agriculture officials sent up planes that dropped a chemical mist on Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, where the light brown apple moth population was quickly multiplying.
The campaign was meant to safeguard valuable crops and to help infested plant nurseries in Soquel and neighboring towns, which were losing millions of dollars after being quarantined.
After the first round of spraying, at least 487 people reported feeling symptoms ranging from itchy eyes to breathing trouble.
Despite the state's assurances that the symptoms can't be firmly linked to the spray — a low dose of a synthetic pheromone mixture approved for use on organically grown crops — residents and officials farther north are getting nervous.
In Marin County, real estate agents are considering amending their disclosure forms to tell future home buyers about the aerial sprays scheduled in the Bay Area this summer and advising them to consult a doctor for more information before closing a deal, said Levi Swift, president of the Marin Association of Realtors.
Though analysts say the spray is unlikely to have any lasting effects on properties in the spray zone or on the real estate market, attorneys say it is wise to notify buyers to ward off potential lawsuits.
"If my real estate agent had knowledge of the spraying activity and didn't tell me, I could certainly sue for misrepresentation," said Lewis Feldman, a senior partner with Goodwin Procter in Los Angeles. "The fact that the government says something isn't harmful doesn't prevent people from filing suit."
In Santa Cruz, Mayor Ryan Coonerty said he was hoping businesses wouldn't take a hit if a rush of people left town or if tourists stayed away in June, when the city is scheduled for a second aerial treatment.
Sunita Chethik, who lived in Santa Cruz for 30 years, said pheromone droplets drifted into her bedroom during spraying in November, causing her immune system to collapse. She recently moved to Santa Fe, N.M., to avoid further exposure, and activists with the California Alliance to Stop the Spray say dozens more people are considering similar relocations.
"The plane was making a pass, and (the spray) came in through an open window and landed directly on us. It smelled like Raid," recalled Chethik, who had a pre-existing case of chronic fatigue. "They're poisoning people, and the only choice they're giving us is to leave."
So far, the moth has had the most palpable effect on those who can't leave: farmers.
The Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau estimates that wholesale and retail nurseries lost $2.8 million in forgone sales and investments toward fighting the moth from April to December 2007.
Chris Pavlos manages a nursery in Soquel, where seven larvae were found rolled into tiny sacs nestled in individual plant leaves.
The moths didn't visibly damage the plants. But the discovery led to a two-day shutdown of the nursery, which caused a $50,000 loss in sales.
Pavlos said he's spent a similar amount hiring moth hunters to scour Soquel Nursery Growers' 14 acres, looking for larvae and treating shrubs with insecticides.
"It's very difficult to get any real rest when they're inspecting you every two weeks," he said. "Even so, we're just not seeing the kind of damages to plants they keep talking about."
According to the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture, the Australian insect threatens more than 2,000 varieties of California plants and crops and could destroy up to $560 million worth of fruits and vegetables in a year.
Spraying is to occur only in areas that can't be treated through ground-based strategies.
State Secretary of Food and Agriculture A. G. Kawamura said the effort was necessary not only to protect agriculture industry, but to save landmarks such as Golden Gate Park, home to many species the USDA considers host plants.
"One side says it's a voracious pest and the other side says it isn't," said Ken Corbishley, agriculture commissioner in Santa Cruz County. "The one thing that is true is that local folks are being impacted."