the Whistle on West Nile
August 14, 2002
By Lynn Landes
I'm reminded of the 1950's. TV newscasts showing clouds
of DDT sprayed on a clueless public, compromising their health
and contaminating the environment for decades to come, as
Rachel Carson writes Silent Spring. But the time is
now, other toxic pesticides have joined the ranks in our wayward
war against mosquitoes, and the Rachels of today are drowned
out by a media rushing to sound the alarm, rather than report
And the news is - pesticides pose a much greater health hazard
than the West Nile virus.
DEET, Anvil, and other toxic pesticides are aggressively
promoted to protect the public from a mosquito bite that appears
to be, statistically, less dangerous than a dog bite or bee
sting. And the CDC seems to agree. On its website it says,
"Human illness from West Nile virus is rare, even in areas
where the virus has been reported. The chance that any one
person is going to become ill from a mosquito bite is low."
Since 1999 only a handful of deaths per year have been associated
with West Nile, even though the virus has been found in 33
The fact that this "health crisis" has been exaggerated,
and that chemical spraying is usually the least effective
yet most toxic way to control mosquitoes, has deterred some
state officials, but not others. The New York State Health
Department backed away from recommending wholesale spraying
after finding that more people got sick from the pesticides
than from the virus. However, Louisiana has just asked for
$17 million in federal aid, and Mississippi is following suit.
There's no word yet on how the money is to be allocated, but
rest assured the pesticide companies stand to benefit.
Meanwhile, some citizen groups are taking matters into their
own hands. The No Spray Coalition is suing New York City to
stop pesticide spraying in their neighborhoods.
There's a good deal of information on government and other
websites about the toxic effects of pesticides, but a comprehensive
picture of the specific pesticides and issues involved in
the West Nile campaign is well laid out in a report called
"Overkill: Why Pesticide Spraying for West Nile Virus May
Cause More Harm Than Good" by the Maine Environmental Policy
Institute (MEPI) and the Toxics Action Center.
In short, they report that these pesticides offer a toxic
legacy: short- and long-term respiratory problems, immune
and nervous system disruption, cancer, and reproductive and
learning disorders. That covers just about everything you'd
never want to get.
The "Overkill" report also emphasizes the association between
outdoor pesticide sprays and neurological damage, stating,
"A report of pesticides and childhood brain cancers published
in Environmental Health Perspectives (a publication of the
National Institutes of Health) revealed a strong relationship
between brain cancers and pyrethroids used to kill fleas and
ticks." Anvil, a pyrethroid, is a popular pesticide used by
state agencies to control mosquitoes.
The use of DEET in mosquito repellents is extremely troubling.
DEET has been associated with seizures and several cases of
toxic encephalopathy (encephalitis) in children, including
three deaths, according to the Extension Toxicology Network
at Cornell University.
The battle against West Nile is supposed to prevent a virus
that can cause encephalitis. It appears the cure can cause
the disease. That would be ironic, if it weren't so tragic.
Dr. Mohamed Abou-Donia, a research scientist at Duke University
Medical Center, whose studies have established a link between
DEET and neurological damage in animals, warns parents in
a recent Environmental News Service article, "Never use insect
repellents on infants, and be wary of using them on children
in general. Never combine insecticides with each other or
use them with other medications. Even so simple a drug as
an antihistamine could interact with DEET to cause toxic side
effects. Don't spray your yard for bugs and then take medications.
Until we have more data on potential interactions in humans,
safe is better than sorry."
Meanwhile, state and federal agencies, including the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control
(CDC), are encouraging the public to use mosquito repellents
containing DEET. Although the CDC warns parents to avoid applying
repellent on children less than 2 years old, the EPA and other
state agencies are not giving that caution. The EPA instead
advises, "Do not allow children to handle the products, and
do not apply to children's hands. When using on children,
apply to your own hands and then put it on the child."
Have these people ever met a child? Children touch everything
and everybody, including themselves. And then they put their
pudgy little fingers directly into their mouths.
While the battle plan's objective is to target the mosquitoes
that carry West Nile, the strikes won't be 'precision' and
the collateral damage could be vast. Pesticides and larvicides
can impact fish, insects, animals, and humans. And although
the public has been told to lather up with DEET, spray pesticides,
and eliminate standing water, little has been said about using
select plants, birds, bugs, fish, and amphibians - gifts of
nature that help control mosquitoes.
It seems we're traveling in a deadly circle. Spraying for
West Nile, while we're gassing ourselves. Falling for a health
scare, when the real scare is the alleged cure. And the real
cure can be found in the natural world we're attacking.
Welcome to the 1950's. Rachel must be rolling in her grave.
Lynn Landes is a freelance journalist specializing in environmental
issues. She is a weekly commentator on the BBC's Radio Five
Live and reports environmental news for DUTV in Philadelphia,