West Nile virus fight best done by spraying

One California resident says she packed her bags and is ready to flee at a moment’s notice. Another lamented at a recent public meeting, “Do elected officials know people don’t feel safe in their homes?” 

Why are some Californians so afraid? They actually believe the pesticides used to control West Nile virus are part of some insidious effort to poison the public — and they won’t listen to reason.

Screaming activists literally took over a recent public meeting that was designed to provide a helpful dialogue between mosquito control officials and the Davis community. Rather than enter a shouting match, public officials left the meeting. Activists then took the opportunity to organize their opposition movement. Before officials left, one activist shouted: “Are we going to be forced to lay down in front of spray trucks?” Such proposals — serious or rhetorical — are simply repugnant.

It would be more rational — and equally appalling — for activists to block ambulances because driving poses risks. Ironically, driving is quite risky, while pesticide-spraying is not.

Mosquito control officials only want to spray for one reason: to save lives. Over the past four years, there were more than 16,000 cases of the West Nile virus and more than 650 deaths. For some of those who survive, the illness can escalate into an excruciatingly painful neuroinvasive disease — one that can cause paralysis. In just the past two years, the Centers for Disease Control documented more than 4,000 cases of West Nile’s neuroinvasive disease. And even the more modest forms of West Nile virus sickness can be quite horrific.

This year, West Nile is hitting California the hardest, which is why mosquito-control operations are out in full force. So far, the CDC reports more than 500 cases nationwide — nearly half occurred in California. It also reported 12 deaths nationwide, half of them in the Golden State. More than 200 of the cases have developed into neuroinvasive disease this year, including 79 cases in California.

The actual numbers are probably higher as it takes time for local case counts to be documented by the CDC. Recent news reports maintain that Sacramento alone has seen more than 200 cases of West Nile illnesses this year. Expect these numbers to climb as cases will continue to mount well into the fall.

As a point of comparison, consider the CDC data on the number of health problems related to pesticide exposures from West Nile-related spraying during the four-year period of 1999-2002. According to the CDC report, there were a total of 131 “potential” and two confirmed cases of temporary illness among a population that CDC estimates was 118 million in 2000. CDC concluded that properly applied spraying poses little risk.

In addition to a very good record when it comes to acute illnesses, pesticide spraying doesn’t pose risk for long-term problems. The Environmental Protection Agency sets standards that only allow exposure levels that are thousands of times lower than levels regulators find safe in laboratory tests. Moreover, mosquito-control sprayers typically only apply two to three-and-a-half ounces of pesticides per acre — and the substance quickly breaks down and basically disappears within a few days, according to EPA.

All products in use were tested extensively to rule out cancer effects, even at high levels. For example, one product currently being used in California contains pyrethroids, insecticides derived in part from chrysanthemum flowers. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the best science does not support claims that such products cause cancer or other serious health effects. The agency notes that there isn’t any evidence showing that these products cause cancer or other problems alleged by activists.

So before more Californians start lying down in front of spray trucks, they might want to reconsider those lives they may sacrifice in the process. After all, mosquito-control officials are only doing what they were called to do: protect public health.