Dobie: A flawed plan to fight mosquitoes

Suffolk County Department of Public Works employees Chris

Suffolk County Department of Public Works employees Chris Kampfer, in back, and Mike Masterson, driving, spray mosquito pesticide on roads in Ocean Beach. The county is planning to conduct ground spraying today on Fire Island, weather permitting. (July 16, 2013) (Credit: Steve Pfost)

Michael Dobie

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday Michael Dobie

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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Seems like every year about this time I cast a wary eye to the sky, waiting for Suffolk County to drop its poison.

Before you start picturing a paranoid ranter with a camouflage suit, night goggles, and an underground shelter filled with supplies, let me reassure you -- they're not out to get me.

They're after the mosquitoes.

And that makes me queasy.

It's not that I'm a mosquito lover. Who is?

What I don't like is the shower of pesticides unleashed by helicopters in an effort to reduce the transmission of West Nile virus, which first appeared on Long Island in 1999.

To be clear: I'm talking only about freshwater mosquitoes, the primary transmitters of West Nile. Dealing with saltwater mosquitoes -- those voracious buggers that feast on Fire Islanders and people living near coastal wetlands -- is a different story for a different day.

So, on Tuesday I got what's now an annual voice mail from the Orwellian-sounding Division of Vector Control saying my area of Babylon Town was going to be sprayed with Anvil. For those of us with fruit and vegetable gardens, this is a problem. The raspberries are in high season, tomatoes are plump on the vine, and other produce is being harvested. And, like many, we're organic gardeners -- no fertilizers, no pesticides.

But it's not just gardeners who should worry. The county says chances are "quite low" you will experience any health effects from its "ultra low volume aerosol." But it encourages such precautionary steps as keeping windows closed and air conditioners off, bringing toys and laundry inside, covering fruits and vegetables and ornamental fishponds, and bringing in pet food dishes.

I'd feel better if the spraying was in response to a real health emergency. That was the bar set by Nassau a few years ago, and the county has stuck with it. That's also pretty much the state's West Nile Virus Response Plan, which says aerial spraying requires multiple indicators -- some combination, admittedly subject to interpretation, of multiple positive tests of mosquito pools, dead birds (mosquitoes become transmitters when they bite birds with the virus) and human cases.

In my case, vector control had 30 positive mosquito samples in the Babylon area from early July through the first week of August. No birds, no known human transmissions.

Fortunately, the aerial attack never took place -- a glitch in an onboard computer system, vector control said -- but instead of taking to the skies when the technology was fixed, they're re-evaluating data, old and new, to see whether spraying is still warranted. They say that's because this is the time of year mosquitoes start dying off naturally and the risk of West Nile transmission declines -- what a difference a couple days makes! The whole thing seems a bit fishy.

I'm not saying we shouldn't spray when the public's health is genuinely at risk. But in the last three years, Long Island has had 61 human cases of West Nile and two deaths.

A better step would be for everybody to get rid of all standing water on their property. That's where freshwater mosquitoes breed, and they only fly about 200 feet from where they're born. Take care of that, you take care of the mosquitoes.

There is a role for pesticides. But let's make sure we're using them at the right times, in the right places, and in the right situations. The ones that kill mosquitoes have in sufficient quantities been linked to liver and thyroid problems and can affect the central nervous system.

In dealing with one public health danger, let's be careful we don't create another.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.