- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002

The growing death toll associated with the mosquito-transmitted West Nile virus has captured the nation's attention. Yet environmental activists maintain that public health officials are engaged in a massive overreaction to a small risk, leading localities to use highly dangerous pesticides. In reality, it's the environmentalists' attack on pesticides that poses the greatest risk.
Environmentalists have gone as far as to depict West Nile fatalities as unimportant.
"These diseases only kill the old and people whose health is already poor," says the New York Green Party in literature opposing pesticide spraying. West Nile is not serious because it only killed seven people in 1999, one activist told the Ottawa Citizen in 2000.
While risks to the average person of contracting the West Nile virus are in fact low, the risks are still real, deadly, and documented. Seven people recently died from West Nile in Louisiana and about a hundred became seriously ill. The fact that those individuals face a higher risk because they were elderly or possibly had health ailments such as AIDS, emphysema or leukemia does not make their suffering less important. In contrast, the risks associated with proper use of pesticides are so low one can't document any lasting effects. There are no documented deaths from spraying.
Medical entomologists agree the pests are the more serious danger, and pesticides provide an important public health benefit.
"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," says 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 explain.
Yet environmental activists have succeeded in convincing policymakers to disregard the advice of public health officials, leading officials to halt spraying and advance pesticide bans.
"The practices of environmental advocacy groups are seriously degrading public health capabilities in the United States. Our public health threats are real, and growing," says Dr. Roberts.
In fact, 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, N.Y., 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.
This year, 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, La., 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.
The environmentalist crusade against pesticides doesn't only impede our ability to address the West Nile virus. "There are many other similar mosquito-borne viruses which could just as easily be introduced into the USA, and some are a lot worse than West Nile," explained World Health Organization adviser Dr. Norman Gratz at a 2001 conference on the topic in Fairfax, Va.
Last year, for example, the mosquito-transmitted dengue fever appeared in Hawaii for the first time since 1943. In severe instances, dengue can produce the potentially deadly hemorrhagic fever, which can lead to abnormal bleeding and shock. Fortunately, local authorities controlled the outbreak using pesticides.
By the end of the outbreak, the state reported 119 cases. While the public need not panic about the West Nile virus, perhaps we should panic over activist efforts to undermine public health uses of pesticides. After all, West Nile is but one of many new and re-emerging diseases. Following environmentalist advice not only exposes the nation's most vulnerable individuals to higher health risks today, it may mean exposing everyone to greater threats tomorrow.

Angela Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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