West Nile Wakeup Bites

It became common in Washington’s parks during the summer to see mothers rubbing their children’s arms, faces, and legs with wipes pulled from brightly colored plastic containers.


Three years ago, these would have been saturated with anti-bacterial cleanser, which had become de rigueur among parents who wanted squeaky-clean kids. But in the summer of 2002, the damp squares of fabric were more likely to be soaked with bug repellent.


This year, mothers were suddenly less worried that little Johnny’s hands might be grubby than that he could get West Nile Virus. The United States is in the midst of its worst-ever outbreak of the disease. Even though the clouds of mosquitoes have gone, along with the summer heat, the death toll continues to rise. According to the latest count by the Centers for Disease Control, West Nile disease has sickened 2,530 people this year and killed 125. This compares with a total of 149 cases and 18 deaths in the three years from 1999 through 2001.


However regrettable to families and friends, 104 deaths do not amount to a major public health calamity in a population of 280 million people. But it’s equally innumerate to console oneself with little factoids such as that a person is statistically more likely to be killed by a falling bale of hay than by the mosquito-borne virus. For most of us, who never get near a bale of hay, the chance of that bizarre agricultural demise is zero. But almost all of us get mosquito bites. They are the bane of barbecue season from the Rio Grande to the 49th Parallel.


Actually, they are the bane of barbecues even further north. The first victim to have contracted West Nile Virus in Canada has died, and there have been more than 20 cases in Ontario and Quebec. The disease has also spread west to California, so it is continentwide and here to stay.


Here to say unless, that is, American society shakes off its romantic environmentalist reverie and ends its antipathetic fixation on pesticides. Like a dog with its favorite bone, we refuse to let go.


Polls suggest that three-quarters of Americans are “extremely or very concerned” about pesticide pollution. With great callousness, the West has even bullied African nations to stop safe and effective use of DDT, even though between 1 million and 3 million people die of malaria on that continent every year.


Notwithstanding a wealth of compelling scientific evidence to the contrary, we have remained convinced, ever since Rachel Carson’s told-us-so in “Silent Spring” (1962), that we’re surrounded by synthetic killers.


Well yes, they are synthetic killers – but the things they kill are insects, not humans. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which cannot plausibly be regarded as underestimating environmental risk, sets safety standards so cautiously that a 3-year old child could without harm stand for 20 minutes enveloped in a cloud of the mosquito killer, malathion, being sprayed at legal concentrations from a fogger truck.


Yet the manufacturer, American Cyanamid Corp., has decided not to go to the trouble and expense of re-registering malathion, as EPA regulations now require, and has instead sold the product rights to a Danish firm that may or may not choose to jump through the U.S. regulatory hoops. If not, an effective weapon against disease vectors might soon be lost. Three cheers for healthy environmentalism.


It should be remembered that the term “tropical disease” does not describe the natural range of the scourges to which it is applied – thousands died of malaria digging the Rideau Canal up in Canada, not just the Panama Canal – but is, rather, a terminological tribute to the way rich countries managed to eradicate many diseases. They did so by draining swamps and spraying pesticides.


Parents, who do not mind the use of chemicals at safe levels to protect children in swimming pools, can have no well-founded objection to the safe elimination of mosquitoes through use of pesticides. It’s not that West Nile Virus has created an emergency – although the oft-repeated claim that only very young and very old people are at risk is as unpleasant as it is factually inaccurate – but there is no environmental health reason not to spray.


The EPA and World Cancer Research Fund are among a wide range of authorities that acknowledge pesticides pose a vanishingly small health risk. You’re much, much likelier to get cancer from supposedly healthy foods such as celery, or from your morning cup of coffee, than you are from environmental pesticides.


In his myth-shattering book, “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” Bjorn Lomborg calculated that the formaldehyde level in a typical house makes staying home for 14 hours 260 times more carcinogenic than consuming the average intake of ETU, the most toxic pesticide in use today.


It should not take a new disease like West Nile to prompt mosquito eradication – we should get rid of them anyway because they’re the most irritating creatures in creation. It would be equally wonderful to eradicate the myths about pesticides – but they’ve been sprayed with facts so often they’ve become immune.





Copyright © 2002 News World Communications, Inc.  Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times.


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