Last fall the national whistle-blower organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility warned that aerial spraying for mosquito control is futile.
Specifically, the group challenged claims made by Massachusetts officials that the state’s July pesticide blitz in 21 communities against eastern equine encephalitis had reduced vector populations by 60 percent. PEER’s New England director, Kyla Bennett, a biologist and former Environmental Protection Agency attorney, explained in a September 2012 press release why pesticides dropped from aircraft fail to hit their targets reliably and why, even with repeated deadly applications, spraying adult mosquitoes cannot possibly curb their life cycles. Larvae keep growing, and resistance develops with every spraying.
In Maine we ignore these warnings at our peril. The chemicals used to kill mosquitoes are devastating to birds, fish, bees and other beneficial insects, as well as to livestock, domestic animals and humans. Cancer, neurological disorders, endocrine disruption and respiratory damage head the list of illnesses known to be caused by these compounds.
Considering the environmental and social costs, we should always aim to reduce risk factors rather than increase them.
Nonetheless, efforts are under way in Augusta to amend existing pesticide rules, invalidating hard-won protections for organic farms, bodies of water and other “sensitive areas likely to be occupied” in the event that authorities declare a public health threat from mosquito-borne disease.
State Agriculture Department officials call the present standards “impractical for wide-area programs conducted in residential areas” and propose to deny residents the choice to opt out of “emergency” aerial-spraying bombardment.
The ground truth is that far more illness has been reported from pesticide poisoning than from exposure to West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis in places where aerial spraying has taken place.
Moreover, because mosquito-killing chemicals destroy natural predators such as dragonflies, they can have the unintended consequence of increasing the number of mosquitoes.
On a parallel track with the aforementioned rule changes under consideration by the Maine pesticide control board is a deceptive bill, LD 292, that would establish certain key provisions in state law. It would cancel out, in particular, the requirement to obtain permission from individual landowners before “emergency” aerial spraying is carried out and authorize the health and human services commissioner to declare mosquito-borne disease a public health threat.
Some of the directives of LD 292 would be commendable if they were spelled out in detail as meaningful pest management. Mosquito surveillance and monitoring, for example, and elimination of breeding sites with safe larvicides such as Bti are ways to avoid spraying by air. But like most pest management claims today, they are merely window dressing in a draft bill that would effectively undermine precautionary standards.
Many other steps are recommended before resorting to poisons broadcast indiscriminately from the air. Communities in some parts of the country have added mosquito-feeding fish in ornamental ponds and marshes. Others have put copepods (shrimplike crustaceans) in swamps, roadside ditches and small pools to eat mosquito larvae. Individual action can be taken also through the use of safe repellents (not DEET), long pants and sleeves, and large fans, along with citronella candles, to deter mosquitoes from backyard activities.
In Maine, a central fact to keep in mind is that mosquitoes cannot function below 50 degrees. Typically, according to the state epidemiologist, mosquitoes with West Nile virus have been found in September, close to the time hard frosts can be expected, after which disease vectors pose no threat.
One of the last things Russ Libby, the revered Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association leader, did in the weeks before his death in December was to write to the pesticide control board, imploring them to avoid the greater harm posed by aerial mosquito spraying.
“The health of citizens in the spray area,” he wrote, “should not be compromised for ineffective spraying programs. … Occupants and owners of Maine properties must be allowed to … [designate] no-spray zones around their [land, with the help of GIS-based technology].”
We would do great honor to the memory of Libby by sending letters now (by March 14) to the pesticide control board and to elected officials, especially those on the Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee and sponsors of LD 292. Urge that Chapters 20, 22, and 51 not be amended as proposed by the pesticide control board and that LD 292 ought not to pass in its current form.
It is imperative to preserve the right of organic farmers and others to use larvicides selectively and to opt out of wide-area “government-sponsored” spraying by aircraft.
There are economic implications to be considered as well as concerns for public health. Even lobbyists for commercial growers who ordinarily insist on using every chemical available to kill weeds and insects on their crops are speaking up at hearings, worried that residues from mosquito pesticides will make produce unsalable to the growing market for safe food.
Jody Spear is an editor and writer living in Harborside, in Hancock County. She is a regular observer of the Maine Board of Pesticides Control.