Pesticides and You, Puhfect Together? The Garden State’s Hands-Off Policy in Dealing with Deadly Mosquitos

In late July, the Federal Communiations Commission held a hearing on issues surrounding the America Online/Time Warner merger



From the August/September 2000 issue of CEI UpDate


Consider the state of New Jersey. The third smallest state in the Union ranks eighth in population, and first in density with approximately eight million people cramming themselves into approximately 8,000 square miles. A tight squeeze indeed.


It’s especially tight when you consider New Jersey’s other population: mosquitoes. In those 8,000 square miles, New Jersey also manages to fit 63 species of sex crazed, maniacally procreating mosquitoes. While not all mosquitoes bite humans, enough do that it was inevitable that the two populations would clash.


For a long time, the mosquitoes won. So numerous were the mosquitoes that most of South Jersey was uninhabitable, and malaria was endemic in the state. In 1915, New Jersey began practicing mosquito control, eradicating indigenous malaria by the early 1950s.


The vast majority of mosquito control, in any state, consists of mosquito monitoring, controlling habitat, and applying larvicides. Only a small portion of the programs’ efforts involves adulticides, pesticides that kill adult mosquitoes. Yet adulticides remain an important part of mosquito control. In NJ, at least one county a year resorts to adulticiding extremely large populations of mosquito. More importantly, mosquito control authorities use adulticides to curb outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases.


Why? Because it works. Take last year’s outbreak of West Nile virus in New York. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reports, after New York City initiated its spraying program, no new onsets of West Nile Virus were reported in the city. But in the outlying counties that hesitated to embark on a pesticide spraying campaign, cases of West Nile Virus continued to occur. The pattern seems to be repeating itself this year.


Despite the effectiveness of adulticides, panic has broken out over their use. Some people claim that the cure is far worse than the disease. West Nile virus, these people reason, only knocks off a few old geezers who are putting a strain on the Social Security system anyway. Whereas pesticides cause immediate health difficulties in some people and will cause cancer in others. They ask: “What will happen to the children exposed to adulticides?”


The answer turns out to be not a heck of a lot.


In its human health assessment of malathion, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) includes evaluations of whether toddlers would get cancer from the aerial and ground application of the pesticide by mosquito control boards. The EPA assumes that during an aerial application a toddler stands for “twenty minutes in an air concentration that is not considered to dissipate.” For ground applications, the toddler stands for twenty minutes in “the direct off-loading of a fogger truck as it passes by, without consideration of deposition rate estimates.” The EPA also assumes that the toddler goes out that same day to play in the yard and sticks dirt and grass in his mouth as toddlers are wont to do. Despite this exposure, the EPA determines that the toddler will experience no ill effects from the malathion.


There are two reasons that this toddler and the 8 million people in New Jersey aren’t being knocked off like TV mob boss Tony Soprano’s competitors. First, the EPA sets the safety standards for pesticides at a level 100 to 1,000 times safer than the level at which the EPA finds the pesticide has no adverse effect.


Second, today’s spraying technology sprays very low amounts of pesticides. For aerial spraying, the amount of malathion sprayed per acre is .23 lbs. Fogger trucks spray .11 lbs. per acre. This amounts from an eighth of a cup to slightly over a quarter of a cup of pesticide mixture sprayed on an area three-quarters the size of a football field. This dose will knock down mosquitoes pretty quickly, but it won’t knock down small children, much less adults. And despite the ferocity suggested by the trade names Scourge and Anvil (the pesticides which New York is using this year to control adult mosquitoes), they have an equally negligible effect on the human population.


What doesn’t have a negligible effect is the agitation over the use of pesticides. Each year there are fewer pesticides to which mosquito control boards can turn when need demands. Rather than face public outcry, chemical companies choose not to re-register old pesticides or develop new ones, leaving mosquito control authorities with fewer weapons with which to fight the buzzing horde.


Pesticides are poisons, and one shouldn’t be outside dancing in the spray as the helicopters pass over. But the old adage that “the dose makes the poison” is true, and the doses used for common pesticide spraying are very low. Mosquitoes are more than just irritating. They provoke allergic reactions in many people and are potentially deadly.


You may be comfortable with the low probability and Darwinist tendencies of West Nile virus. But the elderly aren’t the only “unfit” population that vector-borne diseases kill.  Falciparum malaria kills those with weaker immune systems—children under the age of five and pregnant women—and it kills about two million of them a year. Consider that and the trend of ever increasing world travel before raising the banner to ban pesticides. Because, as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.”


Jennifer Zambone ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at CEI.