by Erik Baard
Last night I saw my first mosquito of the season, flying into my bedroom, hot on my carbon dioxide trail. I lost track of it, but minutes later I heard the soft buzz of menace in my ear. One must never underestimate the dangers of mosquitoes. Emperor Titus was driven made by one that flew up his nose and picked at his brain, buzzing ceaselessly until he was driven into madness and death. Well, at least according to the Babylonian Talmud, written by Jews hopeful that God at least took some vengeance on the sacker of the Great Temple of Jerusalem.
Actually, those ancient Jewish exiles aren’t unique in offering a slanted view of history centered on this insect. Consider yourself, a person who’s probably an environmentally aware reader. If I mention DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), the first person to spring to mind (okay, bad pun) is probably Rachel Carson. Her book, “Silent Spring,” and crusade against the chemical for its role in collapsing bird populations helped unleash one of the strongest currents in modern environmentalism, and led to the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Few remember Paul Hermann Müller, who won the Nobel Prize in 1948 for synthesizing DDT, which contemporaries saw as an incalculably humane achievement. Some credit the invention of DDT with saving upwards of 500 million lives. Even today, the mosquito threat is real. The species transmits diseases to 700 million people in tropical, often poor, regions each year. Over five million people, usually children, die from malaria annually. Mosquitoes also playing a central role in transmitting yellow fever, elephantiasis, dengue fever, Rift Valley fever, several encephalitis type diseases, and Ross River fever.
The fight over DDT usage, as policy leaders balance its risk to human health (in 1987 the EPA classified it as a “probable human carcinogen”) and the environment against its benefits. Of course, strains of mosquitoes in some regions developed a resistance to DDT in the intervening decades. Succeeding pesticides are also controversial. Locally, where 57 of the world’s 3,500 species of mosquitoes live, concerns over pesticides grew with aggressive spraying programs to eradicate insects potentially carrying the West Nile virus.
A few years back I wrote for the Village Voice about how New York City-bound containers of the insecticide malathion, made by Cheminova, was being stored at temperatures known to cause carcinogenic impurities. Spraying has continued in recent summers, affecting neighborhoods in areas as widespread as the South Bronx, western Staten Island, and northern Queens. A recent article in the Antigua Sun continues to raise the red flag.
One troubling passage on the malathion directions label reads:
“Malathion is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the USA.
The EPA doesn’t actually test malathion. It approves the product based on information supplied by the manufacturer.”
In other words, our safety is in the hands of the industry, from the manufacturer down to the evidently often-negligent distributors.
Another aspect of the argument against malathion spraying is that our reaction to the West Nile threat could be overblown, perhaps even hysterical, given how infrequently the disease is fatal.
Some argue that given our relatively less-dense mosquito populations we might take less radical measures like wearing light-colored clothing (the species is drawn to dark colors), eating more repellent vitamin B1 (found in brown rice, blackstrap molasses, sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, wheat germ, and soybeans, among other foods), applying cinnamon oil, deploying nets and screens, and introducing more animals that prey upon mosquitoes. One odd note: mosquitoes are highly sensitive to women’s menstrual cycles. I’m not sure what that says about interspecies sisterhood…
The environmental damage done by spraying is of increasing concern. Parallel to the bee decimation, lobster stocks are historically low. Both marine biologists and the industry suspect malathion spraying, as I reported in the New York Times. Of course there are worrisome inherent contradictions with an insecticide to be used against a wetlands species like mosquitoes when the directions read, as they do on malathion, “Avoid contaminating any body of water.”
Joel Kupferman of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project pointed out to me recently that sprayers near Soundview Park were unaware that just over a ridge they were covering was the Bronx River.
What is not heard often, however, is cost of losing mosquitoes themselves. Their importance as pollinators has been greatly underestimated. After all, sugar from nectar is the species’ primary diet, not blood. Males drink no blood at all, and females imbibe blood from a variety of species only as their prenatal nutrient “superfood.” In the Centers for Disease Control photo above, you see the mother-to-be salivating her anticoagulants into capillary and sucking up a meal). Without mosquitoes, our wildflower and community gardens would be impoverished. Mosquitoes and their larvae are a vital food source for shorebirds, amphibians, reptiles, dragonflies, and small fish.
I don’t expect to see green activists sporting “save the mosquitoes” tee-shirts, but sober policymakers should perhaps be more considered in their decisions.