Back to West Nile Virus

Statement to the Alameda County Mosquito Abatement District,
by Maxina Ventura for East Bay Pesticide Alert, 8/30/05, Hayward, CA

East Bay Pesticide Alert appreciates the opportunity to address Alameda County Mosquito Abatement District representatives, as well as other interested parties, as we describe dangers of a pesticide approach to West Nile Virus concerns.

To begin, as chemically injured people, some members of East Bay Pesticide Alert are of one of the particularly endangered groups, when considering potential West Nile Virus-related symptoms, even rare fatalities; yet, we understand the dangers of pesticide use in response to be statistically far more likely to cause us health problems, even death, than a case of WNV. We take these issues very seriously.

While any death is tragic, we must look at actual statistics which largely have been ignored by municipalities using pesticides in fear of WNV. For instance, in NYC, where WNV was first identified in the U.S. in 1999, out of more than 7 million people, 62 people (less than .0009%) became ill with the virus, and 7 died. That ís 1 in 1 million. For each of those families, this was tragedy. But we have to look further. The seven who died were between the ages of 68 and 87 years of age, again, a tragedy for those families. But we have to consider that of those seven, one had HIV, and 3 were on immunosuppressive drugs for cancer. In the same year, 2,000 — two thousand New Yorkers died from the flu. Same year (77 in report). For most who are infected, apparently including my sister's family in the San Fernando Valley in L.A. County last summer (a dead crow they'd called about in front of their home was never picked up, and later they were told to just toss it in the trash), they experience nothing more than a little headache, maybe joint aches, a bit of a flu-like feeling, and they are back to normal in a couple days, if not sooner.

Contrast this with my family's experience last summer in Alameda County. Throughout the summer, especially on weekends and Mondays, I was experiencing such a deep lethargy I could hardly move. Weekend after weekend was wiped out. I knew that someone was using insecticides as I was also feeling the intense nausea I know so well from past insecticide incidents. Problem was, I had no idea who was spraying, and felt unsafe knocking on doors, as I needed to stay away from pesticides, not get closer. I also knew it could be drifting from quite a distance. Luckily, most of the weekends I experienced that, my kids were away from the house.

One Saturday morning, when I was hanging laundry, I heard an aerosol spray being used and suddenly saw a thick, white spray drifting our way... From over 50 feet away between the backs of the houses. It was another 50 feet around the corner and to the front of our house.

I ran in the house and closed all the doors and windows, in fear. The lethargy hit almost immediately. For 6 hours, I couldn't leave the chair I was in. I couldn't stand up. When my older children returned home Sunday night they did no more outside than leave their dad's car and walk in. I was afraid of possible problems so got them to shower and jump into bed. Next morning, my son, then 8, cried out that he couldn't move his legs. He had had lesser versions of this over past weeks, and my daughter had had lesser versions as well. But this time it was so bad I was on the verge of calling an ambulance, as I couldn't lift an over-100 pound child. I called the hospital and was told to bring him in right away. We figured out how to get him to the car, and took him in, using a wheelchair on the other end. The doctor pronounced this a classic case of insecticide poisoning. Further, she told us we must not stay at our home until we were assured by this neighbor that she would not use pesticides again. I drove back only to pick up some clothes and to get her address, and sent her a letter detailing the problem, as well as alternatives. Unfortunately, she didn't pick up mail until late in the week, so it wasn't until Friday, I believe, that we received a call at our friends' home. Our lives stopped for a week. Thankfully, she was horrified at what had occurred and then stated that she had only been using this as she had been hearing ads saying that this was a good idea. She was afraid of WNV. She had succumbed to the hype of a manufactured crisis. Chemical companies are making out like bandits, as are pesticide applicators. Those must not be our reference points.

One striking fact about our experience is that the acute symptoms were like a terrible case of WNV, which is rare. These symptoms, however, are not rare for people exposed to insecticides, especially repeatedly. Neurotoxic pesticides will wreak havoc with many people's immune systems. The Kaiser doctor said that while the acute symptoms of insecticide poisoning are certainly of concern, what most troubles them is the concern about cancers which will develop for people exposed multiple times.

The fact is, there is no safe use of pesticides. Volatilization carries them far and wide, and it is widely discussed and understood by scientists that, as Dr. Pimentel, a Cornell University professor of entomology explains, in order to kill mosquitoes, the insecticide must hit directly, which rarely it does with WNV spray programs. He says, "I doubt that more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the poison is actually hitting its target." So for every droplet that reaches a mosquito, hundreds of thousands more are thrown into the environment.

First, we must remember that, there is no such thing as eradication of mosquitoes. It is not a possibility. So officials must stop feeding into people's wrongful belief that they have the ability to eradicate mosquitoes if they spray pesticides. Second, the mosquitoes which will succumb will be, as with so-called weeds, the weaker ones. It is the stronger ones which will survive and breed. Mosquito resistance is like plant resistance, which is like antibiotic resistance. We create more problems, not less, when we take a pesticide approach. There is a domino effect, too, which must not be set aside in the discussion. For instance WHO fought malaria in the 1950's, in Borneo, with DDT, which also killed wasps that eat thatch-eating caterpillars. Thatch roofs fell in. Geckoes ate poisoned insects. Cats ate geckoes and died. Rats multiplied and caused typhus and sylvatic plague. So WHO ended up parachuting in 145,000 live cats to deal with the rats. We can only imagine what 145,000 cats which ate plague-ridden rats would look like. And then what of the predatory animals which would have eaten their carcasses? Once toxins are released into our environment, we cannot rein them back in.

Fighting mosquitoes is a losing battle. Pesticides have never worked to get rid of them. WNV is not a disease of mosquitoes, therefore even if many mosquitoes are killed, the next generations will get infected by birds they bite. In states with records of battling mosquitoes, officials are speaking out against NY officials claiming an 85% knockdown rate for mosquitoes as a result of spraying. For instance, Ray Parsons, who runs Houston's mosquito-control program and was a consultant to Rockland County, as well, points out that, trap experiments in residential areas in Florida, the state with the most extensive mosquito-control experience, generally show a reduction of about 30 percent after a spraying., "and that's also about what we get in Houston." (31 Officials who have been speaking out believe, based on 4 decades experience, this 85% claim is impossible.

The focus needs to be on avoiding harm by pesticides to humans (and animals) to increase people's ability to avoid bad cases of WNV, which likely is here to stay. It has been described by Michael Gochfeld, Professor of Environmental and Community Medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and School of Public Health, as "unapparent", "usually asymptomatic", or "occasionally serious." He contrasts this with media descriptions of "lethal" or "deadly", which reinforce public misperception.

Further, DEET is recommended regularly by the CDC, while a basic catnip and olive oil mixture is both effective and non-toxic to even highly chemically-sensitive individuals, including kids. Catnip has been found to be more effective than DEET, as has been cinnamon oil. So why have Alameda County officials persisted in promoting DEET use? It, too, is a neurotoxin. There are many alternatives for those who want to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, including wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts.

Some organizations have been calling for wide use of mosquito "zappers." While these should be non-toxic to humans, EBPA has the concern about beneficials possibly being lost to the zappers, too. But the point is that, Alameda County needs to denounce the use of toxic pesticides and inform the public of real statistics, real dangers of pesticides vs. WNV. We call on Alameda County Mosquito Abatement District to carefully read the toxicological profiles we have presented, along with the report submitted, and disavow the use of toxic pesticides.

While some of us have already have a lot of our lives ruined by pesticides and resultant multiple chemical sensitivities, not one person in this room, or reading this, is immune. We wish for no others to suffer what those of us with chemical problems face on a daily basis.

Maxina Ventura,
Chronic Effects Researcher for East Bay Pesticide Alert