On Monday, July 24, 2000, by order of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New York City’s Central Park was shut down. On that evening the park was sprayed with pesticides that would wipe out mosquitoes potentially infected with West Nile virus. While people in the city were concerned about being infected with the virus, not everybody was in agreement with the mayor on the use of pesticides. One environmental organization filed a lawsuit against the city because they felt the pesticides being used were hazardous to the public’s health.
The debate over pesticides used to spray mosquitoes will continue to grow as West Nile virus continues to spread throughout the country.
A Virus on the Go
We have all been bitten at one time or another by a mosquito. They are annoying insects that feed on human and animal blood and can easily spread disease. St. Louis encephalitis, Eastern equine encephalitis, and West Nile virus are all mosquito-borne illnesses. West Nile virus was first discovered in Africa in 1937 and did not appear in the United States until it was found in New York City in 1999. In February 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that West Nile virus could now be found in 44 states and has caused more than 300 deaths.
Children, teenagers, and adults under 50 who are infected by the virus often will not be affected. The biggest threat is to older people. They may develop high fever, body ache, disorientation, and paralysis or death in the most severe cases.
To Spray or Not to Spray
Spraying pesticides to destroy adult mosquitoes and their eggs is one method used to stop the spread of West Nile virus. There are many different types of pesticides used today for mosquito control. All pesticides are poisonous and dangerous if not used correctly. The body absorbs them by inhalation, ingestion, or skin penetration. High exposure can cause dizziness, headaches, fatigue, vomiting, and abdominal cramps. Some people are sensitive to even a low exposure of pesticide and will experience temporary eye and skin irritation. It also can irritate an existing condition such as asthma.
Weighing the health risks from pesticides against the chance of getting sick from West Nile virus can be difficult in some cases. Bob Peterson, a risk assessment scientist from Montana State University, says, “The risk associated with properly used pesticides is much lower than the risk associated with West Nile virus.” Still it is up to your local officials and community leaders to decide if it is beneficial to spray in your area.
Washington, D.C., is one city that has chosen to limit the spraying of pesticides because they have a lot of people who have asthma. Spraying pesticides would put them at a greater risk.
Cities that do spray lower the risk of potential danger by informing the community when, where, and what type of pesticide they will be using. Spraying usually takes place very early in the morning or late at night when most people are sleeping.
Many people are still not convinced about the safety of pesticides and feel helpless when their community is being sprayed. If you are concerned about pesticide spraying in your area, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends families take these steps to protect themselves and minimize the risk:
* If possible, remain inside when spraying takes place.
* Close windows and doors before spraying begins.
* Cover outdoor furniture and toys or wash them with soap and water after spraying.
* Consult your doctor if you begin experiencing any symptoms from the pesticide spraying.
* Turn off your air conditioning before spraying begins.
* Wash exposed skin surfaces with soap and water if you come in contact with the pesticide.
Some communities are using other methods to fight against West Nile virus (see “Fight the Bite,” at right). Knowing what is being done in your community and taking the proper precautions will minimize your chances of getting sick.
Fight the bite
Spraying with pesticides is not the only way to fight mosquitoes. The New York State Department of Health started a “Fight the Bite” campaign to inform the public how they can prevent the spread of mosquitoes. Other states have similar programs. Here are some suggestions offered to citizens:
* Because mosquitoes breed in water, remove from your yard tin cans, old tires, plastic containers, ceramic pots, or anything that holds standing water.
* Drill holes in the bottoms of recycling containers.
* Turn over plastic pools.
* Change water in the bird bath.
* Make sure all windows and doors have screens.
* Wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and socks and shoes if you are going to be outside for a long period of time during dusk or dawn.
* Always wear insect repellent that contains DEET. But make sure you follow all the directions when applying it.
* Encourage your neighbors and local businesses to reduce potential breeding sites as well.
* Organize a community-wide clean-up drive. For more information about how you can “Fight the Bite,” contact the New York State Department of Health or your state or local health department.