West Nile Virus: Pesticide Fears Bite

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Earlier this month Mississippi State Department of Health officials identified a bird in Marion County with West Nile virus the first official identification of the virus this year. Health officials in Ohio have identified one probable human case of West Nile virus and are awaiting confirmatory test results.

Last year the number of cases of West Nile virus (WNV) in the United States doubled, marking the worst, albeit not the most deadly, outbreak ever recorded with 8,649 cases and 206 deaths, up from 4,156 cases and 300 deaths the year before.

With the arrival of the mosquito season, public health officials are once again considering spraying pesticides to control mosquito-borne WNV.

But environmental activists allege that the effects of pesticide spraying are more harmful than the damage inflicted by the virus itself. A new Competitive Enterprise Institute report, Pesticides and the West Nile Virus: An Examination of Environmentalist Claims (see http://www.cei.org/gencon/003,03968.cfm), by Angela Logomasini takes on some of the allegations made by anti-pesticide activists. Logomasini considers the following activist claims and sets the record straight:

Allegation: Pesticides are more harmful to human health than WNV.

What Data Show: Since WNV first arrived in the northeastern United States in 1999, there have been a total of 12,954 reported cases of WNV and 524 reported deaths the extent of the outbreak has far exceeded expectations, surpassing all other reported WNV outbreaks in the world. Contrast this with the alleged severity of the pesticide toll. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data on documented cases of pesticide-related health problems from 1999-2002 indicate that there were a total of 133 potential cases 2 definite, 26 probable, and 106 possible only one of which, involving a woman with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, could be considered severe. As Logomasini observes, "That s a total of 133 potential cases of temporary illness over four years among a population that CDC estimates was 118 million in 2000." Contrary to activist hyperbole, pesticide spraying boasts an impressive track record of success.

Allegation: Pesticide spraying poses greater threats to birds than West Nile virus.

What Data Show: Given activists' purported concern for birds, it's especially ironic that activists are content allowing WNV to wipe out whole bird populations that are susceptible to the virus. According to the CDC, WNV has killed birds from at least 138 bird species, some of which are already listed as endangered. In 2002, Bird Watcher s Digest reported that WNV killed 400 great horned owls. For every dead bird reported, there are likely to be anywhere from 100 to 1,000 unreported cases, meaning that there could have been as many as 400,000 great-horned owl deaths in 2002 alone.

In 2001, activists claimed that pesticides claimed more bird lives than WNV in New York. New York state data obtained and analyzed by Steven Milloy (http://JunkScience.com) indicated that most of the toxins affecting birds in the sample were naturally occurring. Of the 3,216 bird deaths, 1,263 were attributable to WNV and 1,100 to botulinum. Of the 219 bird deaths that were pesticide-related, 30 were intentional poisonings of pest birds, 100 were from illegal pesticide use, and 27 were due to lawn care products.

Allegation: Pesticide use kills off aquatic life.

What Data Show: Environmental activists and lobstermen attribute the massive lobster die-off that occurred in Long Island Sound in 1999 to New York City s malathion (an insecticide used to control pests) spraying. In response to these allegations, the U.S. government channeled money into lobster research to study the problem. What did they find? Research shows that a combination of natural factors unusually warm waters, unusually low oxygen levels near the sea floor, abnormally high levels of other naturally occurring chemicals, and increased susceptibility to parasites played a big part in the die-off. In short, several years of federally funded research has not turned up a definitive link to malathion. On the contrary, the research thus far suggests that the die-off occurred due to climate change and natural pathogens.

Allegation: DEET is dangerous for children.

What Data Show: As Logomasini points out, "Environmental activists have even attacked one of the few things that individuals can do to protect themselves: application of chemical insect repellents, particularly those that contain DEET." While activists point to several alleged cases of children suffering seizures or death from exposure to DEET, the medical literature suggests otherwise. A review of the case studies published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found only ten such cases of children reportedly suffering seizures due to DEET exposure of those ten, in none was there conclusive evidence that DEET had in fact caused the seizures. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the effectiveness of various insect repellents and found that DEET-based repellents provided the longest lasting protection, concluding that DEET was the "gold standard for protection" against insect-borne disease, when used as directed.

Health officials have caved to such anti-pesticide activist hype in previous years. In 2002, Illinois led the nation in both WNV infections and deaths as government officials kowtowed to radical environmentalists, rejecting the widespread spraying of insecticides.

Will public health officials allow green politics to preempt science? Given the record-breaking extent of last year s WNV outbreak, one hopes that health officials will be bitten by the common sense bug before allowing the mosquitoes to have unfettered access to the public.