Protecting Bobby From Mosquitoes

Blue Ridge Press    August 2002

The July-August 2002 of the American Mosquito Control Association carries a photo of Bobby, who looks like the quintessential American boy—outdoorsy, sturdy, mud-stained. In more tattered garb he could be Huck.

But the caption reports that Bobby lists mosquitoes first among "summertime nuisance[s]." Summer reading didn't even make the list.

It's OK to hate mosquitoes, not OK to let them interfere with kids and summer. Somewhere we've acquired the notion that there's a quick chemical fix for everything natural we don't like, from lousy grades to biting insects. But there isn't, especially for mosquitoes. And by pretending otherwise we infuse our youth with a preciousness alien to our national character. It's as if John Wayne had swapped his horse for a golf cart to save himself the saddle sores.

There are plenty of mosquito-control measures that are safe and effective, none more so than applying repellent to skin. The least safe and effective measure is spraying poisons—“adulticiding," as mosquito-control bureaucracies call it.

Nowhere is adulticiding more rampant than in the Southeast. Here, as elsewhere in the nation, publicly funded mosquito-control programs are organized by county or region. In at least 35 states, and throughout the Southeast, adulticiding has become a major business, pushed by the companies that manufacture the poisons and by the people paid to apply them. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates use of these poisons, but the EPA, mosquito-control agencies and pesticide manufacturers are all one big happy family, with personnel moving from one outfit to another like coaches among NFL teams.

The EPA, traditionally indifferent to ecosystems, proclaims that the popular adulticide Malathion "does not pose unreasonable risks to wildlife." But "unreasonable" in whose opinion?

The agency goes on to explain that the stuff is "highly toxic to insects, including beneficial insects such as honeybees." Another popular adulticide blessed by EPA is resmethrin. But, according to the manufacturer itself, "This pesticide is highly toxic to fish. ... Drift and runoff from treated sites may be hazardous to fish in adjacent waters."

A truck fogger loudly belching Malathion or resmethrin imbues a large portion of the public with a warm, tingly feeling, but while adulticides kill mosquitoes within a few feet of the road, replacements arrive in minutes. Meanwhile, insects that prey on mosquitoes—such as dragonflies—are poisoned off, too. In the end there are more, not fewer, summertime nuisances. It's like coyote control—stockmen know it doesn't work, but they hate coyotes so much they love the idea that someone's out there killing a few.

Tufts University professor Dr. Sheldon Krimsky, one of the nation's leading pesticide-risk assessors and adviser to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on West Nile virus, says this: "The mosquito-control people will make you think that without their programs there will be havoc, that mosquitoes will just take over. They walk around with anecdotal information—‘We kill 40 percent of the mosquitoes,' etc.—but they have nothing published. They're spraying neurotoxins and carcinogens around. If you're doing this, it had better be justified. It hasn't been."

It's not that Krimsky thinks we should ignore West Nile virus (a mosquito-borne disease from Africa that appeared in the Southeast last year). It's that he and other experts believe routine adulticiding for nuisance mosquitoes offers no protection and may impede emergency spraying for West Nile virus by building pesticide resistance in mosquitoes that carry the disease.

West Nile virus is roughly as dangerous to humans as influenza. Occasionally, it kills people (particularly seniors) but most victims recover with no damage. Basically, it's a bird disease. Last year in Georgia, for example, it showed up in six humans and 326 birds.

Despite the danger of promoting West Nile virus with regular adulticiding, the mosquito-control industry is having tremendous success falsely advertising its product as disease prevention. American Mosquito Control Association columnist Peter H. Connelly, who works for Aventis (a producer of mosquito poisons), reports that, with West Nile virus on the loose, business prospects for mosquito controllers are very bright: "We are possibly entering a period of industry growth unprecedented since the midwestern U.S. St. Louis virus outbreak of the 1970s."

There's only one safe, sensible way to protect Bobby from mosquitoes: Spray him, not your town. Then deprive mosquitoes of man-made habitat such as old tires, cans, bottles, clogged rain gutters, places where stagnant water collects and mosquito larvae thrive.

After that Bobby will still get bitten. He may even get the "secondary infections" mosquito controllers harp about. But boys like Bobby wouldn't get them if they got outside more.

Huck didn't get secondary infections because he didn't scratch. He didn't scratch because he didn't itch, and he didn't itch because he'd been bitten enough to build immunity to the stings.


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