Killing Mosquitoes or Killing Humans?

Published July 1, 2001

It took me a long time to understand why so many environmentalists oppose any and all pesticides.

It began with Rachel Carsen’s Silent Spring in the 1960s, filled with dire predictions about pesticide use, most of which have long since been proven wrong. By way of just one example, she claimed DDT spraying would wipe out the U.S. robin population. Instead, the bird’s population actually increased between 1941 and 1972.

How many people have died from insect-borne diseases because of her book can’t even be calculated, but the loss of DDT alone has doomed millions. Dr. Kelvin Kamm, Ph.D. of Pretoria, South Africa noted, “When a Boeing 747 smashes into the ground killing all on board, it makes massive international headlines. But seven of those 747s full of people is the same number of Africans who die every day from malaria, and there are no international headlines.”

West Nile Virus

I asked Joseph M. Conlon of the American Mosquito Control Association for some information about the West Nile Virus (WNV). He told me that in 1999 four states reported 65 cases of the disease and epizootic (epidemic among animals) activity from birds and/or mosquitoes. By the following year, 2000, 17 states had conducted West Nile surveillance programs.

“The virus appeared to have expanded both north and southward along the eastern seaboard to 12 states in addition to the District of Columbia.” Dead birds were found everywhere in the surveillance. “In all, 4,139 dead birds of 76 species from 133 counties in 12 states were found positive for the disease.”

One elderly man died from the disease in New Jersey last year. In 1999, seven people died after outbreak of the disease. There were 21 confirmed West Nile Virus human cases with the onset of the illness in 2000. “Given theoretical subclinical/clinical case ratios, approximately 2,000 humans were thought to have been infected,” said Conlon. Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control predicts that “widespread WNV epizootic activity probably will persist and expand in the United States, [and] larger outbreaks of WNV infection and human illness are possible if adequate surveillance, prevention activities, and mosquito control are not established and maintained.”

To put it plainly, if an intensive mosquito control program is not implemented, people are going to die. What is the response of the environmentalists?

Pests over people

“The New Jersey Environmental Federation has been successful at trying to persuade county officials to limit the widespread use of pesticides this year, said Jane Nogaki, a federation spokeswoman,” reported the Star-Ledger, the state’s largest circulation newspaper, on April 21.

Environmentalists are horrified that pesticides are used to control the billions of insects that represent a threat to human life, but they rarely express concern that humans die needlessly when deprived of pesticide use. A successful war against pesticides has been fought now for decades and resulted in the loss of DDT in 1972. In 1997, nearly 300 million cases of malaria were reported worldwide, resulting in a death toll that approached 10 million.

In 2000, the environmentalists’ anti-pesticide campaign forced the withdrawal from the free market of Dursban, a pesticide used in more than 800 products used to protect homeowners inside and outside their property. Even a pesticide applied with nothing more toxic than water, Ficam, was forced off the market by the Environmental Protection Agency’s demand for new testing. It had been used safely for two decades destroying billions of cockroaches and other pest insect species.

William O. Robertson, director of a poison control center, reflected on his 30 years’ experience and said, “I do not recall a single incident of Dursban-caused illness. As a matter of fact, we see very few incidents of poisoning symptomatic of any kind of pesticide exposure. But we see lots of children with bee stings and insect bites.”

“It would be unfortunate,” said Robertson, “if publicity over the Dursban decision resulted in parents being afraid to use insecticides to get rid of insects. The next problem they face could be a serious allergic reaction from insect bites or exposure to cockroach allergens.”

EPA has been the enforcement agency that has pursued the banning of pesticides since its inception in 1970. Dursban had been used around more than 20 million American homes for years to protect families and pets. It eliminated cockroaches, ticks, fleas, as well as termites and carpenter ants that annually inflict billions of dollars in property damage. More than 3,600 reports and studies had examined the safety of Dursban products. Nevertheless, EPA forced the manufacturer of Dursban to withdraw the pesticide. The ban was based on the overly applied “precautionary principle” of potential overexposure through misuse of the product. It did so by abandoning the use of human data, using rodent studies instead.

A year ago, EPA began reviewing yet another excellent pesticide, malathion. Malathion is widely used to suppress the mosquito population in states where they threaten to spread West Nile Fever. EPA claims, once again, that malathion has “potential” to cause cancer. If the agency is successful, there will be one less pesticide to protect humans, and countless human victims will result.

Which is worse, the “potential” for overexposure to pesticides through misapplication, or the certainty of countless human victims when such pesticides are banned?

Alan Caruba, a veteran business and science writer, is founder of The National Anxiety Center, a clearinghouse for information about scare campaigns. The Center maintains an Internet site at