Early warning

Vector control, citizens group hope to avoid a repeat of last summer’s mosquito wars

After last year’s aerial-spraying hullabaloo, the citizens’ group Stop West Nile Spraying Now (SWNSN) and the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District hope to become allies instead of enemies in this season’s fight against mosquitoes.

Last August, when reported human cases of West Nile Virus in the county ballooned to 21, and the Sacramento area became the nation’s West Nile epicenter, the district took to the air, dropping insecticides over Sacramento in a last-ditch effort to curb the spread of the virus.

But the district’s spraying did little to quell the public’s fears of possible infection, instead alarming residents who doubted the safety of dispersing chemicals over urban areas. (See “Once bitten” by Cosmo Garvin; SN&R News; September 1, 2005.) Soon, potential sprayees were asking questions like “What are the effects of the chemicals on pregnant women?” “Who will clean off children’s play equipment in local parks?” and “Is this treatment even effective?”

Residents were told that the chemicals posed no serious risks to humans or the environment, but officials on the vector-control board admitted that the district should have used more aggressive tactics to notify the public of its plan.

This season, members of SWNSN aren’t waiting on the district to be in touch. The group has already drafted its own plan to help the district “fight the bite,” which includes the district training SWNSN’s volunteers to identify “existing and potential mosquito breeding sources” and determining whether “adult and/or larval stages are present.”

In a letter sent to the control district’s general manager, David Brown, SWNSN spokesman Donald Mooney said the group’s volunteers would “be limited to the public areas of the City of Davis, UC Davis, and private property that is in plain view from public property.”

“We wanted to take a more proactive approach and actually look for spots,” Mooney told SN&R.

But Brown insists that Mooney’s approach is not what the district needs. “We don’t want to discourage any help,” Brown said. “But his proposal is to help us in public places. We already know about those.”

Brown says that the district is not concerned so much with public breeding sources, like lakes, rivers and wetlands, as it is with private ones, such as birdbaths, ornamental fountains and neglected pools. He claims that the district knows about most public sites, but it can’t see what’s in your backyard.

That’s why Brown says he encouraged SWNSN to participate in a recent door-hanger distribution day last month and was discouraged when he didn’t hear a response.

According the district’s Jennifer Benito, volunteers handed out 3,000 door hangers in Davis.

“Our goal was to educate the public early and often so we don’t have mosquito sources scattered around the home. Instead of helping us identify sources, how about not creating mosquito sources to begin with?” Benito asked.

But Mooney says that wasn’t the plan last year.

“A year ago, they said they’d love to have us come out and look for spots,” he said.

Still, Mooney isn’t miffed. He hopes to keep a dialogue open between his folks and the district and stresses that his goal is still the same: to avoid giving the district the excuse to spray.

But if the community-outreach programs fail, Benito says, spraying might still be an option.

Brown contends that the chemicals used in the spraying are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and are an effective treatment for young and adult mosquitoes, but SWNSN says the chemicals aren’t as benign as the district would like people to think. The group’s Web site claims that the pesticides used in aerial application contain both piperonyl butoxide, a possible human carcinogen, and pyrethrins, which can “disrupt the normal functioning of sex hormones.”

Still, Benito says, “When we meet certain [West Nile] thresholds, we must protect public health.”