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West Nile Hysteria: The Snake Bite of 2002
by Don Fitz, Green Party of St. Louis
When in elementary school, I got a snake bite kit for when we went hiking in the woods. By the time I was in high school, someone figured out that more people were dying from snake bite kits than snakes and they stopped urging kids to get them.
The West Nile Hysteria of 2002 may have been a classic case of a cure being worse than the disease. Like bee stings, which kill about as many people, West Nile is deserving of public education and medical professionals’ becoming aware of how to treat it.
What is truly astounding is that what was used as the frontline “cure” for West Nile—massive pesticide spraying—has been known for decades to be a threat to human and animal health. Those who peddle each new generation of pesticides claim that the last pesticides were harmful, but that this new, improved version is the safest on the market. During the 2002 hysteria, pesticide proponents often added reassurances that the chemicals being used were derivatives of chrysanthemum flowers.
…what goes into the new generation of sprays is not a plant derivative but a more deadly synthetic imitation called “pyrethroids.”
This misleading claim ignored the fact that many plants manufacture toxins (remember poison ivy?) and that what goes into the new generation of sprays is not a plant derivative but a more deadly synthetic imitation called “pyrethroids.” Pesticide advocates may claim that they “have not been proven to be dangerous,” aware that this is typically heard as “the chemical is safe.” In fact, it takes many decades to prove the variety of health risks associated with a chemical. We do know that the toxic mix of chemicals going into insecticide sprays exacerbate breathing disorders such as asthma.
One popular pesticide, permethrin, is a neurotoxin which is suspected of disrupting the endocrine system, interfering with sexual development, damaging the immune system, and increasing the risk of breast and lung cancers. Another favorite, sumithrin, may increase liver weight and risk of breast cancer and acute sumithrin poisoning (symptoms include hyperexcitability, prostration, slow respiration, salivation, tremor, ataxia, and paralysis).
Those advocating their use habitually fail to mention that both are accompanied by a “synergist,” which is defined by the Extension Toxicology Network (EXTOXNET) as “chemical agents used to enhance the killing power of the active ingredients.” For both permethrin and sumithrin, the synergist piperonyl butoxide (PBO) is added. According to EXTOXNET, PBO “is suspected of causing anorexia, carcinogenesis, coma, convulsions, dermal irritation, hepatic and renal damage, hyperexcitability, prenatal damage, prostration, tearing, unsteadiness, vomiting and weight loss.”
If you think that chemicals this dangerous must be doing a great job of killing mosquitoes, think again. David Pimentel of Cornell University wrote that as little as 0.0001% of ultra-low volume sprays actually reach target insects (Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 8:1, 17-29, 1995). For every droplet that bongs a mosquito, hundreds of thousands remain available for human, animal and plant contamination.
The hit rate may be better if the spraying occurs at a popular mosquito hangout, like a stagnant pond. But that spraying is likely to kill mosquito predators. Pyrethroids are extremely toxic to aquatic organisms, including fish, lobster and shrimp, as well as beneficial insects such as bees and butter-flies.
Spraying is particularly bad for children, those with pre-existing health conditions, and workers who are exposed to high levels of pesticides.
There is already a high incidence of many of these diseases among people of color due to the tendency to locate toxic facilities in low income neighborhoods.
Children are more susceptible to pesticides than adults because their developing organ systems can easily be damaged by toxins. Childhood cancers are linked to pesticide use. Cancers are now the second leading cause of death of children under 15.
A tragic result of the Great Skeeter Scare of 2002 may have been parents rushing to buy repellants with high concentration of DEET. Rachel Massey notes that of “14 cases in which individuals reported seizures associated with exposure to DEET…12 were children, 3 of whom died” (Rachel’s Environment & Health Biweekly, No. 710, Oct 26, 2000). Of particular concern is the ability of DEET to interact with other chemicals and medications “to produce severe toxic effects on the nervous system.” If a small child is next to an adult doused in DEET, the child’s fingers are likely to touch the adult’s arms or legs. Where do the fingers go then? Into the mouth, of course.
Also vulnerable to pesticide poisoning are those with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma and other breathing disorders, allergies, immune system disorders and chemical sensitivity. There is already a high incidence of many of these diseases among people of color due to the tendency to locate toxic facilities in low income neighborhoods. This adds an environmental racism aspect to pesticide spraying.
High risk persons also include workers who apply sprays or who are in areas repeatedly sprayed. Six employees of Clarke Environmental Management signed affidavits that after spraying in New York, they had symptoms including fatigue, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, hair loss, nausea, and sexual dysfunction.
The massive spraying of 2002 seemed designed to give a sense of security that “something is being done.”
Dr. Dennis Goode, of the Biology Department at the University of Maryland, reported that during 2000, when 14 New Yorkers sought treatment for West Nile Virus, over 200 became ill from the spraying. The US does not need a repeat of Andhra Pradesh province in India, where BBC reporter Ayanjit Sen wrote of 500 farmers dying from pesticide exposure.
The massive spraying of 2002 seemed designed to give a sense of security that “something is being done.” Public health would benefit by more thought-out strategies and fewer politicians pounding their chests as aggressive mosquito attackers.
Recently, I saw a TV story of a new WNV case with a politician announcing that he would have helicopters spray massive amounts of insecticide. As he swaggered Rambo-style to shake the hand of someone with a spray-gun, I jumped up yelling, “I know that pesticide pusher! He’s the guy who used to sell snake bite kits when I was a kid.”
[21 apr 03]