Jessie Brand’s house backs onto a wooded ravine. When the weather is good, she loves to sit outside, listening to the soothing sounds of the creek as it meanders through the forest beyond her fenceline. But not all of Jessie’s neighbors appreciate the close proximity of Nature anymore. “Last summer, the elderly lady who lives next door called city officials, demanding they spray the entire ravine to kill off the mosquitoes,” says Jessie. “Even though she rarely comes out, she’s terrified she’s going to get West Nile virus.”
Jessie’s neighbor isn’t the only one who’s scared. Since the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus (WNv) was first detected in the United States in 1999, a wave of fear has washed across communities throughout North America. Many experts point to dogged media attention and the exotic origins of the virus (it was first identified in Africa in 1937) for creating the hysteria.
They say some overzealous politicians have responded inappropriately to public concern by introducing blanket pesticide spraying campaigns designed to eradicate the mosquitoes – campaigns that they say are ineffective and potentially much worse for us and our animal companions than the virus itself.
Dr. David Pimentel, a professor of entomology at Cornell University and a longtime pesticide researcher pointed out the problems in an article in Newsday. “In order to work, the insecticide must hit the mosquito directly,” said Dr. Pimentel. “But since spray trucks are only fogging the street side of buildings, I doubt that more than one-tenth of one percent of the poison is actually hitting its target. And you have to put out a lot of material to get that one-tenth of a percent onto the mosquito. We need to address this, because if we’re just spraying all over and not doing a damn bit of good, then this is a waste of time and money, and it’s also a hazard.”
Shawnee Hoover, Special Projects Director of the Washington, DC-based group Beyond Pesticides, agrees. “There’s no research or credible proof that adultacides prevent or affect West Nile incidence at all,” she says. Other sources express concern that the pesticides will kill mosquito predators, such as fish, dragonflies, damselflies and beetles and, similar to the antibiotic crisis, will produce pesticide-resistant “super” mosquitoes.
To deal with the fall-out of West Nile-related spraying, Beyond Pesticides has formed a new coalition – the National Alliance for Informed Mosquito Management (AIMM) to share information and education with the public and government bodies about the dangers of spraying and the alternatives that are available. The group puts companion animals in a high risk category for effects from pesticides.
“Because of their size and being close to the ground, they would be affected the same way as children. We know, for instance, that the lawn care product 2,4-D has been linked to non-Hodgkins lymphoma in dogs.” While West Nile virus has infected humans, birds, cats, bats, chipmunks, skunks, squirrels, and domestic rabbits, so far only one dog case has been reported. Those most at risk include birds and horses, and an equine vaccine is now available to protect this species.
With the virus expected to hit California this summer, municipalities continent-wide are planning anti-mosquito activities. Concerned Americans are meeting resistance from mosquito abatement districts – agents contracted by local government to make and execute recommendations regarding the mosquito problem in their areas.
While many have switched from using organo-phosphate pesticides to synthetic pyrethoids, even these pesticides are cause for great concern, says Shawnee. Part of the problem is not only with the pyrethoid itself, but with the inert ingredients which make up the majority (approx. 90%) of the product.
“You’re getting exposed to the pyrethoids, which we believe are endocrine disruptors, and to the petroleum distillates, which are carcinogenic and have been linked to birth defects and other illnesses.” Other toxicology testing reports show adverse chronic effects, including effects on the liver and thyroid.
If you add DEET into the mix, as many municipalities are doing through newspaper and radio promotion campaigns to help prevent mosquito contact, the picture looks more dismal. “Researchers found that a combined exposure to DEET and pyrmethrin can lead to serious memory dysfunction, learning and motor deficits,” says Shawnee.
So what’s the alternative to spraying? Shawnee says the more environmentally sensitive communities are using mosquito larva-eating fish and larvacides, specifically Bacillus thuringiensis var. israelensis (B.t.i.), rather than adulticides. B.T.i. pellets are dropped into ponds and basins to eliminate mosquito larvae and are considered less toxic to humans and wildlife.
She also stresses the need for individuals to mosquito-manage their own properties and use safe natural repellent prevention (e.g. products containing geraniol, citronella, or catnip – reapply throughout the day). Also, find out what your local government has planned for your community. If you don’t like it, take steps to let them know. Beyond Pesticides offers an organizing packet to assist you.
Prevent mosquitoes from breeding near you
• Recycle, store or toss out any containers on your property that can hold stagnant water, such as buckets, toys, old tires, wheelbarrows, etc.
• Drill holes in the bottoms of recycling bins, storage containers or garbage bins.
• Drain the water from birdbaths, fountains, wading pools, and plant drip trays twice a week.
• Check air conditioning units to ensure water is not collecting underneath them.
• Clean out your gutters and fix those that sag or do not drain completely. Check for areas of standing water on flat roofs.
• If you have a swimming pool, outdoor sauna, or hot tub, make sure rainwater does not collect on the cover.
• Store your canoes and kayaks upside-down.
• Keep grass cut and trim shrubs to minimize hiding places for adult mosquitoes. Clear culverts.
• Aerate ornamental pools.
• Make sure window and door screens fit properly, and replace outdoor lights with yellow “bug lights.” Enter and exit your home quickly (no open-door chats).
• Wear hats, long sleeves and pants in the evenings outdoors.
• Keep animals inside at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.
What to do if spraying occurs around your home
1. Keep windows closed during and immediately after spraying. If possible, turn off window air conditioners.
2. Keep children and animals (and yourself) inside during spraying and until the next morning after spraying.
3. Cover or store inside portable outdoor furniture, toys, pet dishes and tools, and cover items such as barbecues or sand boxes.
4. Cover ornamental fish ponds and vegetable gardens.
5. Remove shoes when entering the home after spraying because pesticides can be tracked indoors and remain toxic for months in synthetic carpet fibers.
6. Hose off swingsets, window screens, door handles and hand railings after spraying occurs to avoid direct contact.
7. If you suffer symptoms such as dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, weakness, blurred vision, breathing difficulties, or irritation of the eyes, nose, lips, mouth or throat, see your doctor immediately.