West Nile death march heads west

Published October 1, 2002

West Nile virus continues its death march across the United States, with 43 people confirmed dead and 954 made seriously ill this year alone.

The virus has blanketed the U.S., sparing no region. Since the virus first appeared in the United States in 1999, 57 people have died, bird deaths are in the thousands, and other species have been stricken as well.

Just a few elderly deaths?

The inexorable march of West Nile has called into question national and local anti-pesticide policies. After suffering a widespread and deadly outbreak of West Nile in 1999, New York City embarked on a concerted pesticide spraying program that limited the city’s death toll and ended the outbreak’s status as the city’s leading news story. However, anti-pesticide fears at the federal and local levels have enabled the virus to gain new momentum outside the Big Apple.

“These diseases only kill the old and people whose health is already poor,” claims the New York Green Party in literature opposed to pesticide spraying. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on August 8 that the average age of persons infected with West Nile this year is 55.

Moreover, West Nile is just one of many deadly diseases carried by American mosquitoes. For example, a 12-year-old Wisconsin boy died of mosquito-borne encephalitis in early August. Malaria and other previously defeated diseases are returning in the absence of DDT spraying.

“About 1,200 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the U.S. each year,” noted Henry Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, “and it won’t be long until West Nile virus infections far exceed that level.”

Absence of DDT deadly

“It’s time to bring back the insecticide DDT,” said Steven Milloy, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and author of the book Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Scares and Scams.

During World War II, American scientists adapted a Swiss moth-killing chemical into the single most effective weapon ever invented in the war against mosquitoes. DDT saved millions of lives worldwide and won its inventor a Nobel Prize.

E. John Beidler, mosquito control director in Indian River County, Florida since 1955, recounted how effective DDT was in eliminating the deadly insects. As a high school student in 1943, Beidler was working in a Florida Army lab by the mosquito-infested Banana River where DDT was being tested. There were so many mosquitoes in the air that lab workers’ tan mesh belts were transformed into “black fuzzy belts” by all the swarming insects. Less than an hour after aerial DDT spraying, there were “no mosquitoes at all. It was like magic.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, public relations campaigns conducted by such groups as the World Wildlife Fund succeeded in scapegoating DDT for such alleged harms as weakened egg shells and declining bird populations. Since then, those allegations have been discredited by scientific research. An EPA administrative law judge acknowledged the sound science shortly before the agency nevertheless gave in to special-interest pressure and banned DDT in the early 1970s.

“DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man,” concluded the judge after seven months of hearings and 9,000 pages of testimony. “DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man. … The use of DDT under the regulations involved here does not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds or other wildlife.”

The EPA judge’s conclusions followed directly on the heels of a report by the National Academy of Sciences that concluded: “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. … [I]n a little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria that otherwise would have been inevitable.”

Although the use of DDT effectively eliminated malaria in America and other developed countries before falling victim to environmental activist groups, the children of Third World countries have not been so lucky. With DDT use all but outlawed by environmental activist groups, 1 in every 20 children die from malaria in sub-Sahara Africa, according to Milloy.

“Contrary to the environmentalist view, public health campaigns that use insecticides against diseases have a remarkable record of public safety and a remarkable record of protecting humans from insect-borne diseases,” agreed Dr. Donald Roberts, professor of tropical public health at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. “The primary goal at the onset of mosquito-borne disease epidemics is to eliminate the infective mosquitoes as quickly as possible,” researchers at the National Institute of Medicine, an affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences, noted in a 1992 report. “Transmission can only be stopped by the effective application of a pesticide that kills adult mosquitoes,” they explained.

Chemophobia costing lives

However, pressure from anti-pesticide activists has curtailed use of the very weapons most effective at preventing the mosquito-caused deaths of humans, birds, and other animals.

“The practices of environmental advocacy groups are seriously degrading public health capabilities in the United States. Our public health threats are real, and growing,” said Roberts.

“In fact,” observed Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “many public officials decide not to spray rather than face criticism from activists. For example, shortly after discovering West Nile-infected mosquitoes in East Meadow and Hempstead, New York in 2001, local health officials there followed the antispray advice of local activists. ‘We believe the risk of infection for residents remains quite low,’ Nassau County’s Health commissioner told the press in early August 2001. But apparently, the risk was not low enough for East Meadow residents Adeline Bisignano and Karl Fink. Both became ill with the virus at the end of that same month and died the following November.”

The Long Island communities of East Meadow and Hempstead are not alone in their life-taking indifference to pesticides. As Logomasini noted, “Public officials around the country continue to follow the antispray agenda. ‘It’s not a serious problem,’ Darrell Williamson, former public works director in Alexandria, Louisiana, told the local paper at the end of July, explaining why the city does not have a mosquito-control program. It was just days later that public officials reported the seven deaths and a hundred illnesses in Louisiana, leading the governor to declare a state of emergency. Louisiana’s state epidemiologist told the press he would not be surprised if the number of cases rises into the hundreds this year.”

DDT a long-term solution

Communities such as New York City that have engaged in aggressive spraying programs have temporarily gained the upper hand on mosquitoes and West Nile virus. However, in the absence of DDT, even these programs are less effective than they could be.

“Currently used pesticides, such as malathion, resmethrin, and sumithrin, can be effective in killing mosquitoes but are significantly limited since they don’t persist in the environment after spraying,” observed Milloy. “DDT does. DDT lingers longer and so is more effective in mosquito control.”

Nevertheless, Milloy emphasized, the amount of DDT that lingers after spraying is only significant enough to harm mosquitoes—not non-target species.

“There’s never been any credible evidence that the low levels of DDT residue in our bodies and the environment have caused any harm,” Milloy noted. “Even if concern exists over DDT residue persisting in the environment, limiting DDT use solely to mosquito control would ensure that any such buildup would be dramatically lower than in the past.”

That’s because DDT use would be more efficiently targeted in future usage. “At the time EPA banned DDT,” said Milloy, “approximately 12 million pounds of the insecticide were used annually. But almost 99 percent of that amount was used agriculturally to protect cotton, soybean, and peanut crops. Only about 159,000 pounds—a little more than 1 percent of the 12 million pounds—was used for other reasons, including insect control.”

Observed Pennsylvania Forest Industry Association President Dale Anderson, “I find it interesting that we stopped using DDT because it was alleged to be killing birds. However, that was later disproved. Now, West Nile virus, which could be controlled by using DDT, is leaving dead birds in backyards around the country. Ironic.”

“Judicious use of DDT won’t harm people or the environment,” added Milloy. “It will, however, kill mosquitoes—which is better than mosquitoes killing us.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information

Steven Milloy’s book, Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Scares and Scams, is available through Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1930865120/theheartlandinst.