Our Opinion: Answering question of to spray or not to spray

Now that warm weather has finally descended upon the Berkshires, complaints about the mosquito abatement program are springing forth faster than larvae hatching in a stagnant pond (Eagle, June 8). The controversy isn't new, and it involves the usual opposing factions: those who believe that the dangers presented to humans, animals and wildlife by the toxic chemicals used to kill mosquito eggs and adults aren't worth the benefits, and those who believe that not addressing mosquito infestation aggressively invites disaster on an epidemic scale at the hands of infectious viruses.

In Pittsfield, the Berkshire County Mosquito Control Project, which is jointly sustained through state and local funding, operates the program. Its superintendent, Chris Horton, has been grilled before by the city's Committee on Public Health and Safety, during which time he has contended that the spray used is not toxic to humans. As with any issue involving angry and fearful constituents, however, a public health problem that would appear to be a slam-dunk from a scientific standpoint has become highly politicized.

City Council President Peter Marchetti and Councilor Helen Moon, who had called for an all-out ban on chemical spraying, settled at a Thursday meeting of the city Committee on Public Health for a compromise limiting chemical use to instances when the state Department of Public Health declares that there is a moderate risk level for acquiring human disease or when risk is low but trap counts are high. Ms. Moon, a nurse, has legitimate concerns about the public health ramifications of spraying, but if one person in Pittsfield were to fall victim to an exotic mosquito-borne virus, such as West Nile or Eastern Equine Encephalitis, local residents would be clamoring for a blanket spraying of the entire city, rather than the judicious, targeted strategy currently in use.

Additionally, councilors worried that the spraying program would create a false sense of security for Pittsfielders who might assume they were totally protected, when in fact spraying, while effective up to a point, is not a foolproof remedy. Again, from a public health standpoint, the relative sense of confidence enjoyed by the populace is irrelevant to the efficacy of the program, or whether its use is justified.

Fortunately, the anti-spray forces moderated their absolutist stance and agreed to a compromise that appears workable. The Mosquito Control Project will no longer spray property upon a homeowner's request, unless Superintendent Horton determines through testing that a dangerous number of mosquitoes land within a certain time frame, or any are infected. Also, every spraying will have to go the Board of Health approval process. This is sensible, especially if some homeowners have availed themselves of the project as a kind of free lawn treatment. Should they have a problem that, in Mr. Horton's assessment, doesn't rise to the level of a public health threat, presumably they can pay for their own treatment with a private company. Of course, all this creates red tape for Mr. Horton and the project, and mosquitoes do not respect red tape or the time it takes to navigate it.

The Committee on Public Health and Safety will vote on this proposal at its next meeting and it would be wise to approve it. Its members are probably hoping that this policy tweak will be enough to satisfy their constituents. Let us all hope that it does, for the compromise does not in itself constitute a significant erosion in safety. While those who oppose spraying are vocal in their concerns, councilors are obligated to avoid triggering a public health issue.


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