California's secretary of agriculture tried to sell a program of aerial spraying for an invasive moth to the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday night, but the council instead put him on notice that a lawsuit is brewing.

The council heard from A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the state Department of Food and Agriculture, and a doctor from the California Department of Public Health, who said he could not be certain there would be no ill health effects from the spraying for the light brown apple moth. The council then voted 8-1 to oppose the spraying and explore legal options to stop it.

The state is planning to spray the East Bay using aircraft in August.

The council also directed the city manager to work with other cities in the Bay Area to collaborate on apossible lawsuit.

The city joins Albany in officially opposing the spraying. And four bills have been introduced in the state Legislature to slow or prohibit it.

Kawamura and Dr. Rich Kreutzer, chief of the environmental health investigations branch of the California Department of Public Health, argued that the potential for the moth to disrupt California's food supply outweighs the potential of humans getting sick from the spray.

The state plans to use a product called CheckMate that uses pheromones to disrupt the mating cycle of the moths, with treatments planned at 30- to 90-day intervals. Kawamura said the moth feeds on 250 food crops and hundreds of other plants.

He confirmed that after spraying in Santa Cruz County last fall there were more than 640 health complaints. Three state health agencies are investigating them to verify they are related to the spraying and will draft a report in about a month.

Complaints have included asthma attacks, shortness of breath, skin rashes, stomach pains and other respiratory problems.

"We don't have absolute certainty about the toxicity of certain ingredients (in the spray), but the amount is exceedingly low," Kreutzer said. "We're talking about tablespoons per acre. But I will never be able to say there is nobody who would be affected."

About 50 people spoke against the spraying, including Nan Wishner, chairwoman of Albany's integrated pest management task force, and Dr. Elisa Song, of Belmont, a pediatrician who specializes in environmental health effects on children.

"Some children will be extremely sensitive to some of these chemicals," Song said. "The chemicals could react synergistically with other chemicals in the environment. We don't have enough information to know if this is safe."

Song said the long-term effects of CheckMate have not been tested on children. Although the ingredients in CheckMate do not show up in state and federal databases as being harmful to adults, Song said they could still be harmful to children, because they have underdeveloped livers, which filter toxins.

In Oakland, meanwhile, the City Council took a first step toward opposing the spraying Tuesday night.

The city's public safety committee unanimously approved a resolution from council members Larry Reid (Elmhurst-East Oakland) and Jane Brunner (North Oakland) in opposition of spraying until an outside agency can verify it is safe. The full council will consider the resolution next month.

"A very curious issue for me is that they're spraying in Richmond, Berkeley and Oakland, but they are not spraying in Danville, Walnut Creek and out in the valley," Brunner said.

Larry Bezark, an assistant director with the state Department of Food and Agriculture, said the cities Brunner mentioned are being sprayed because tests showed they have higher moth populations compared with other areas.

The committee nonetheless voted to oppose the spraying. After the vote, people seated in council chambers, many of whom had raised questions about the health and environmental impact of the spraying, burst into applause.

The state agriculture department is using an allocation of $74.5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the spraying. California is operating under an emergency declared by the USDA to allow the spraying before an environmental review is conducted. A successful lawsuit could, however, stop the spraying, a state agriculture department spokesman said.

Kawamura said his department "takes the lead in protecting the food supply" and that it needs to act swiftly to eradicate the moth or else it could set up shop permanently in California. 

Robert Dowel, a state entomologist, said California could lose $140 million to $640 million a year from damage to crops by the moth.

Other ways the department plans to kill the moth are by using native stingless wasps that will attack them; putting the pheromone on twist ties and tying them to plants to the tune of 250 per acre; and using a bacteria to attack the eggs, Kawamura said.

Berkeley Councilmember Linda Maio asked Kawamura why the state can't slow down and find out whether the spray will harm people.

"This type of species is time sensitive because it's spreading as we speak," Kawamura said.

Staff writer Kelly Rayburn contributed to this story.

Contact Doug Oakley at doakley@bayareanewsgroup.com.