Mosquito spraying splits opinions
West Nile Virus control in county has already begun

With snowpack returning to normal this winter, the Animas River should prove to be a healthy breeding ground for mosquitoes. The Animas Mosquito
Control District has already begun spraying for the wintering pests in hopes of stemming the spread of West Nile virus. Some community members object
to the widesread used of chemicals, the effects of which, they say, are not completely
understood./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Although snow is still blanketing La Plata County, efforts are already under way to tackle the expected summer spread of West Nile Virus. The Animas Mosquito Control District, bolstered by additional tax money, has started spot spraying for the insects. At the same time, concerns about the long-term impacts of chemical spraying on human and environmental health also abound. Numerous citizens are advocating a more holistic approach to stemming the spread of the virus.

“We started about two weeks ago,” said Sterling Schaaf, manager of the Animas Mosquito Control District. “What we’re doing now is called surveillance, and we’re checking to see if we have overwintering adults and if we can take care of them before they fly away.”

The view from the spray truck

Schaaf’s efforts and those of the Florida Mosquito Control District are targeted at limiting the impacts of West Nile by eliminating the disease’s host organism – the mosquito. West Nile first appeared in La Plata County last year and can result in severe neurological disease with meningitis or encephalitis. The risk of severe disease increases with age and persons older than 50 can die from the disease.

The Animas Mosquito Control District covers roughly 100 square miles from Baker’s Bridge to the north, Falls Creek to the west, Edgemont Ranch to the east and to a point 5 miles south of city limits. Last year, the district sprayed roughly 15 percent more pesticide over this area, and last November, voters approved a property tax increase to help fund the cost of more chemicals, equipment and spraying, all in an effort to defeat West Nile.

“We’ve been barely just making it every year,” Schaaf said. “It will allow us to upgrade our equipment, and we’re going to have to have more people because we’re looking at a big year and a lot more spraying.”

The district is approved to use a variety of chemicals including adulticides permethrin and malathion and larvacides like altocid and BTI. As for the risk posed to humans by these pesticides, Schaaf said matter-of-factly, “There are no health hazards.”

Getting inside the district

Travis Stills, a local environmental attorney and Fort Lewis College professor, is also concerned about the return of West Nile this summer. However, he is more troubled by the impacts of a mosquito-control program that has focused almost entirely on the spraying of chemicals throughout La Plata County.

“I’ve had an interest for quite a while in how the mosquito districts do what they do,” Stills said. “One of the things I’m concerned about now is the potential hype and overreaction to West Nile. I’m afraid the overreaction will lead to a policy of just spraying and not looking at other factors that contribute to West Nile’s spread.”

Stills is concerned enough that he has decided to run for the Animas Mosquito Control District’s board of directors, which is holding its election May 4. As many as three other non-traditional candidates may also be on the ballot.

“The efforts to get any decent information out of the districts have been hard fought,” Stills said. “That’s really unacceptable when you’ve got folks spraying all manner of chemicals that we then have to guess about.”

Beneath the marketing

Unlike Schaaf, Stills takes a different view of the dangers of the pesticides. “We have incredible amounts of data and teaching on West Nile,” he said. “By comparison, the data on the impacts of the pesticides is almost nil. There are only two surveys that I know of.”

Stills noted that allergic reactions and immune system impacts among humans and death among fish and aquatic insects have been linked to pesticides like permethrin. He said it is also suspected that the pesticides have long-term impacts. “What little data is out there suggests that we have long-term impacts that are not well known,” he said.

Michael Rendon, director of the Fort Lewis College Environmental Center, concurred with this assessment. “I know it’s extremely hard to place the impacts,” he said. “We might not know until 30 years down the line.”

Stills said that as a board member he would work to remove the veil between citizens and chemical companies. “It is the responsibility of the mosquito district to demand all documentation of the impacts that pesticides might have,” he said. “That would be one thing I’d ask for, and it’s not exactly a radical demand.”

Economics and the environment

Rendon and Stills have other concerns about the impacts of spraying as well. They both cited environmental damage as well as potential agricultural drawbacks to excessive pesticide usage.

“Depending on when and where you spray, you kill off beneficials as well as mosquitoes,” Rendon said. “Parasitic wasps and pollinators are also impacted by the pesticides.”

Stills added that excessive spraying may actually backfire with the extremely adaptable mosquito and create super resistance. “What may happen this spring is mosquitoes will become resistant to various sprays, and (the sprays) will thereby be eliminated as one of the tools for effective mosquito control,” he said.

Rendon cited a case in the Animas Valley last summer where an organic grower was accidentally sprayed and consequently lost his hard-earned organic certification. 4

“Another concern I have is people on the ‘no spray’ lists getting sprayed and losing their organic certification,” he said. “If you lose your organic certification, that’s your niche market, and it’s gone.”

Sterling Schaaf, of the Animas Mosquito Control District, stands next to the Electramist Ultra Low Volume sprayer in the bed of a company truck at the district’s facilities on Trimble Lane./Photo by Todd Newcomer

Getting out of the spray truck

Both Rendon and Stills stressed that they are concerned about West Nile. Both also agreed that spraying has a place in any campaign against the virus. However, they called for a more comprehensive approach than solely spraying chemicals .

“I’m not saying West Nile is a triviality at all,” Stills said. “From everything I’ve heard and read, there will probably be deaths in the area this summer. But it has to be dealt with on some level other than saying, ‘Let’s just spray the bejeezus out of them.’”

Rendon called for specific approaches, saying, “I’d like to see the mosquito districts focus a lot harder on prevention and push education. I’d like to see them work with the less hazardous larvacides instead of the adulticides. And over the long term, I’d advocate upping biological controls like amphibians and bats.”

If the San Juan Basin Health Department has its way, Stills and Rendon could see their wishes come true. Wano Urbonas, the department’s environmental health director, said that the department is conscious of concerns and consequently, a multi-pronged approach to West Nile control is under way.

Kick the can

“We’re not going to support jumping out and spraying from day one,” Urbonas said. “We’re taking more of a kick the can approach.”

Urbonas said that kicking the can will include public education, stagnant water removal, monitoring and eventually spraying at proper times and in proper places. The San Juan Basin Health Department will work to provide oversight to both mosquito districts this spring and summer, he said.

“We expect the mosquito districts to honor no-spray lists,” Urbonas said. “We would like to see them spraying at proper times, like early morning and dusk and when honey bees are not out and about. And we’ll be working with them to make sure that the EPA-approved products are being applied properly and safely.”

Urbonas concluded that a combination of efforts could help La Plata County deal with what promises to be a big year for West Nile Virus. “This is going to be the banner year,” he said. “We should see a spike in levels, but probably not until mid-summer.”

Urbonas added that after this summer, cases should taper off. However, he said that regardless of spraying, prevention or education, West Nile will stick around.

“We should be seeing a decrease in the number of cases in coming years,” Urbonas said. “Not that it’s going to disappear. We’re going to have to learn to live with West Nile just like we learned to live with plague, rabies and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.”






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