Palo Alto History. Org

Palo Alto Pests: The 1981 Medfly Invasion

Here's a PA history trivia question: Name a bug smaller than a fingernail that it takes the Governor of California, the National Guard and 80 million dollars to kill.  If you said, “The Mediterranean fruit fly” you were probably living in or near Palo Alto in 1981.  In that year, the insect more commonly known as the “medfly” nearly crippled California’s agricultural industry, wrecked Jerry Brown’s Senate chances and led to a media frenzy that convinced many in Palo Alto that their homes would soon be sprayed from above with toxic DDT.

California’s medfly morass began on June 5th, 1980 when two medflies were found in a trap in San Jose. Medflies (not native to the U.S.) are among the peskiest of all Earth’s bugs.  By laying their eggs under the skin of a wide variety of popular fruits, medfly larvae are born inside the fruit, become maggots and destroy it.  Agriculturalists were quick to point out that a medfly outbreak was capable of completely ravaging the state’s 14 billion dollar agricultural industry and the California economy as a whole.  As the medfly began to be found in increasingly wide circles, California decided to wage war on the intruding insect.  

They began with the implementation of the so-called “Sterile Insect Technique.”  Since female medflies only mate once, local governments flooded the Bay Area with some 1.3 billion sterile males.  2,000 workers also went door-to-door stripping trees of fruit and 62,000 backyards were sprayed an average of 6 times each.  It even became a crime not to strip your fruit trees, punishable by a $500 fine and up to 6 months in jail.  The National Guard was called in to help oversee the process. By June 1981, it seemed that the medfly battle had been won.

But suddenly, the medfly was back with abandon.  Although at first it seemed that the bug had inexplicably acquired some sort of supernatural strength, it turned out that the medfly’s comeback was quite explainable.  Someone in Lima, Peru had messed up big time.  Mistakenly, a canister of fertile medfly males had made it down the assembly line and into California, shipped directly to Palo Alto.  As the Valley’s apricots began to ripen, in came 50,000 horny flies and soon Palo Alto and surrounding towns were flooded with medflies.

In Sacramento, Governor Jerry Brown hesitated.  A liberal environmentalist with many supporters in Silicon Valley, Brown was not keen on spraying chemicals on the base of his political support.  Rather than order aerial spraying, he proposed a new massive ground attack.  State Republicans hit the roof.  An emergency session of the Legislature was called, Brown’s poll numbers were in free-fall and there was even some talk of impeachment.

And the rest of the country began to see there was something amiss in the Golden State.  Florida, Texas, Georgia and even Japan imposed quarantines on California crops, not wishing to acquire their own medfly populations.  On July 10th, the Reagan administration (no friend of the Democratic governor of the nation’s largest state) forced Brown’s hand.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that unless aerial spraying began immediately, all California agriculture wound be quarantined.  With no cards left to play, the Governor gave in and ordered the spraying to begin July 14th at midnight in Palo Alto.  Malathion, a commonly used insecticide mixed with a sweet, sticky bait would be let loose from helicopters over the homes of Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Mountain View.

The media and public outcry was deafening.  For several days, nearly the entire front section of the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle was devoted to stories about the aerial spraying.  The Red Cross set up shelters for residents who wished to escape the line of fire, some doctors came out and said the elderly and pregnant women were in danger, and Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Sunnyvale sought a restraining order on the spraying.  Some environmentalists even promised to shoot down the helicopters if they tried to unleash Malathion on local homes.

Over the next few days, the California Department of Health Services rallied itself and flooded the airwaves with experts assuring the public that the chemical was harmless in small doses---that Malathion was no worse than bug spray used around the house.  They set up a hotline (it received 8,000 calls the first week), convened a Medfly Health Advisory Committee and planned studies of the effects of the spraying.   Within 24 hours, the news media began to report the expert take on Malathion and the fervor began to die down.  The California Supreme Court turned down the injunction request and the spraying went forward as ordered.  

Two dozen protesters came out in Palo Alto---one sporting a sign saying, “Welcome to Palo Alto, the Cancer Research Laboratory”---but they had difficulty even locating the night helicopters.  Although a few dozen people showed up at the Red Cross the first night, by the end of the week, the shelters were empty and were closed.  No one came forth with any significant ill health due to the spraying.

Over the next few weeks, the outcry faded and eventually the medfly was eradicated.  There are still websites that decry Malathion’s dangerous effects, but most doctors and scientists feel that there is no long-term danger from spraying.

Although, the medflies never reached the San Jouquin Valley and its valuable farm products, the medfly scare was enough in itself.  The statistics are overwhelming.  2 million households received literature about how to deal with the medfly, 5 millions cars were inspected for fruit, 100,000 pieces of fruit were confiscated from them, 4,000 square miles were quarantined and 1,300 square miles sprayed. Prices of
California fruit took a nosedive nationwide costing farmers millions and Jerry Brown went down to defeat in the California senate race---in part because his perceived vacillation on medfly issue.  What a lot of harm a little bug can do. []

 Our Reader's Memories:

"I lived near Felton Ca. I remember dead birds in the driveway. And then for a few years there were no birds. My formerly healthy daughter, formerly healthy self, our healthy young dog, and our newborn foal all developed auto-immune disease within a few months after the spraying. For my daughter and myself it was gradual. We did not connect it to the spraying. Then our young animals started having strange symptoms. They each came back from the Vet with a diagnosis of auto-immune disease. Still we did not connect it to the spraying. Then as my daughter and I got more and more lethargic, and felt like we had the flu all the time, we sought medical treatment. After some time I scratched my head and said 'hmmmmm,,,,,,I wonder' "
-Sara Burgin

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The $80 million pest.

Governor Jerry Brown in 1981.

Medfly helicopters over Santa Clara.

A button remembers the 1981 "stripping" for medflies.