Dallas County has declared a state of emergency by county judge Clay Jenkins after nine deaths caused by mosquito-borne West Nile virus. Officials have determined that the best way to reduce exposure to infected mosquitoes is to blanket densely populated areas with
a cocktail of neurotoxin and endocrine-disruptors pesticides. Concerned citizens are worried aerial spraying could affect humans, animals, waterways, and crops, but Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Dr. David Lakey says no worries, guys, it’s totally safe:
I firmly believe that aerial spraying is safe. I understand the inherent apprehension a lot of folks have when chemicals are released by airplanes.
So, firmly believing in something makes it true, right? He also stated that he “didn’t believe” it would affect other insects such as bees or ladybugs. According to The Dallas Observer, Justice Jenkins was asked what would happen if cities “resisted” being sprayed:
“I believe in democracy,” Jenkins responded, but added that it was his “lay opinion” that aerial spraying was the best option. “We will do everything in our power to protect the people of Dallas County from this epidemic.”
Although it is tragic that people have died, it would be premature and alarmist to call this an epidemic. The virus causes high fever, headaches and delirium. The elderly are more likely to die from infection than younger persons with stronger immune systems. Eliminating sources of standing water, staying inside at dawn and dusk, and wearing repellent and protective clothing decreases the chances of exposure. Mosquito populations fluctuate from year to year, depending on the weather and the level of natural predators. West Nile Virus has only recently found its way to North America, with cases of human infection first detected in 1999. West Nile Virus has since rapidly spread to nearly every state in the country in the last decade. Current population trends and increasingly higher temperatures coupled with mild winters suggest that West Nile Virus is here to stay.
Studies have shown that insecticides such as the pyrethroids used in aerial spraying can contaminate waterways and kill beneficial insects and wildlife. Humans also exhibit increased insecticide metabolites in their urine after aerial spraying, even when taking precautionary measures to avoid exposure. Furthermore, sustained applications lead to insect-resistance, with mosquitoes evolving immunity to the toxin. Widespread use of a chemical whose impact is not fully understood can lead to dangerous consequences that could dwarf the crisis currently posed by West Nile Virus. Currently, the efficacy data is supplied to states by the manufacturer, which couldn’t be problematic, could it?
In the middle of the 20th Century, DDT was a widely used pesticide that was later found to cause cancer and played a role in decimating bird populations. The chemical effectively killed mosquitoes, but the insects soon developed resistance. Eventually, DDT was banned in the United States. The pollutant persists in soil for decades and is absorbed by aquatic creatures. The compound is stored in fat, and is not readily metabolized by humans or other mammals. Nearly all humans have this chemical stored in their bodies as a result of soil and water contamination. DDT has been linked to increased instances of diabetes, cancer, low-birth weight and miscarriage, and other serious other health effects.
Despite the “belief” that pyrethroids are safe, they have been shown to be an equal-opportunity killer of bees, mayflies, dragonflies and other insects. They are also highly toxic to aquatic life. Wastewater treatment facilities are ineffective at removing pyrethroids from water. It is also highly toxic to cats, because they lack the factor necessary for metabolizing the synthetic compound. Some people are more sensitive to the chemical than others, but at high levels it is toxic for all humans. Microparticles can enter air passages and trigger serious asthma attacks and allergic reactions.
The CDC’s fact sheet on pyrethroids is pretty clear on the known side effects of the compound, but officials have decided that the benefits of spraying outweigh the risks. In the short-term, perhaps, but the long-term effects are clearly harmful. Several states, including my home state, currently spray insecticides to combat the mosquito population, without popular consent or input, even areas where there have been no cases of mosquito-borne disease. Already widely used in homes and businesses, pyrethroids are the effective ingredient in many of the insecticides approved for consumer use, such as RAID. Overuse of the chemical has led to a population explosion of resistant bedbugs, which are plaguing many homes and hotels, not to mention Urban Outfitters and Victoria’s Secret!
Some municipalities have developed more environmentally conscious mosquito-control plans that reduce the risks of contamination of soil, crops, and waterways and minimize exposure of wildlife and humans to potentially harmful chemicals. Using common-sense methods and educating the public is a long-term solution that reduces the risks of chemical poisoning and the development of insecticide-resistant “superbugs.”