Poison profits: Nontoxic alternatives to harmful insecticides snagged in regulatory approval process

UC Davis researcher among those discovering poison-free approaches to controlling mosquito populations

Hundreds of Californians have been killed by West Nile disease, and research suggests the pesticides being used to control the mosquito-borne virus may come with a health toll of their own—developmental disorders and potentially higher cancer rates.

Now, health officials and UC Davis researchers are waiting for the federal government to approve the use of nonchemical measures that scientists say could eradicate mosquito-borne diseases without compromising the public’s health.

But with the powerful chemical industry pouring millions of dollars into lobbying efforts and an industry-friendly Republican about to take power in Washington, the process of commercially registering nontoxic alternatives to conventional insecticides could take years. Anti-pesticide activists even fear a shift backward, toward weakened regulatory standards for chemical pesticides at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“There will be a tremendous upheaval in the area of controls—of restrictions, regulations, limitations—that are all needed” to protect Americans from exposure to toxic chemicals, said Jay Feldman, executive director of the organization Beyond Pesticides.

UC Davis entomologist Anton Cornel, who works at the university’s Mosquito Control Research Laboratory in Parlier, Fresno County, has been researching chemical and nonchemical insect controls for years. He says he is especially interested in a method, developed by a small company called MosquitoMate, of infecting male mosquitoes with a bacterium of the genus Wolbachia. This bacterium makes the males sterile. When released into populations of wild mosquitoes, the males pass on the sterility to females. Trial runs have shown the method to be very effective, knocking down mosquito populations infected with the bacterium by as much as 80 percent.

The method also seems to pose no danger to the public.

“This is completely nontoxic,” said Stephen Dobson, a University of Kentucky professor of entomology and also MosquitoMate’s president. “We’re not killing anything. We aren’t even killing the mosquitoes.”

Cornel also says the Wolbachia biological control poses no identifiable risk to people.

“But it still needs to go through the regulatory process,” he said. “It’s probably years away.”

Another poison-free approach that researchers hope to eventually bring to the market consists of genetically engineering mosquitoes such that they produce offspring that do not live past the larval stage. This method, too, would not harm the environment, according to researchers. As UC Davis epidemiologist Chris Barker said, the technique “is a dead-end from an evolutionary perspective.” In other words, the trait cannot be passed on through the species or to other creatures.

Like the Wolbachia bacterium technique, though, this method will need to go through a process of testing and approval by the EPA, and in California it will not see use in public spaces anytime soon.

Feldman notes that chemical manufacturers may have cause to push back against biological mosquito controls, since these nonchemical measures compete with conventional synthetic insecticides, taking a chunk out of their profits.

With any influence over the EPA, the industry—reportedly worth $10 billion in annual sales—could in theory stall or stop the regulatory process that would eventually put nonchemical controls on the market.

Already, the companies that make insecticides, including Dow, Monsanto and Syngenta, spend more than $33 million each year combined in lobbying expenses to help keep their products on shelves, even if science shows they may be causing more harm to people or the environment, according to a 2016 report from the organization Friends of the Earth.

The EPA and the industry it oversees already seem to be on dangerously friendly terms.

According to author Evaggelos Vallianatos, who detailed the fraudulent science and industry influence that has corrupted the EPA in his 2014 exposé-memoir Poison Spring, the EPA’s administrators and the captains of the chemical industry share a dangerously cozy relationship already, with many employees from one side slipping through a “revolving door” for employment on the other side.

President-elect Donald Trump has made comments and administration appointments that have some media speculating he could be planning to dismantle the EPA entirely. However, Feldman suspects the most Trump will do is weaken existing standards for testing new chemicals and approving them for use. This would be, in part, because the chemical industry actually needs, and benefits from, the EPA’s imposing presence.

“These companies try to water down regulatory protections and underlying standards, but they also love being able to stand in front of people later and point at a regulatory process as an indicator of how safe their product is,” Feldman said. In that sense, the EPA serves as a powerful marketing tool that the industry might not wish to lose.

Anti-spray activists have decried the use of pesticides in public spaces for years, but to little avail. This summer, the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District dropped naled from airplanes more than 100 times. An extremely potent organophosphate poison, naled has been approved by the EPA for use in public places.

Stacy Beason, a resident of Stanislaus County, wants the routine spraying of public places to stop.

“When you have millions of mosquitoes on a soccer field, and you spray once a week, and when you come back there are just as many as before, well, it’s not working and now the kids might be at risk of West Nile and cancer,” said Beason, who tested positive for West Nile virus in July.

Besides health and safety, there is another reason for reconsidering chemical insecticides: they aren’t working as well as they once did, as mosquitoes have developed genetic resistance to their killing powers.

That’s a frightening proposition to Gary Goodman, manager of Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District, which routinely sprays insecticides from airplanes over local farmland and towns. His agency is primarily concerned with West Nile disease, which has killed more than 230 Californians since 2003, when it was first detected in the state.

“If you look at just the past 20 years, you’ve got West Nile virus that came to New York City in 1999,” Goodman said. “Now you’re dealing with Zika. You’re dealing with chikungunya. You’re dealing with a reemergence of dengue throughout South America, Mexico and now coming into the United States.”

Feldman even expects that the chemical industry, though it may resist nontoxic control measures for a time, will eventually shift direction. “Their pesticides are losing their efficacy, and they’ll have to embrace biological controls,” he said.