Our Opinion: Mosquitoes pose hazard to the health of residents


As the British author C.S. Lewis wrote, "Hell for a man can be heaven for a mosquito." The city of Pittsfield is fighting valiantly to reduce the hellish nature of mosquito season in the Berkshires through the Berkshire Mosquito Control Project, but as is usual with intractable problems of a public nature, no solution is going to please everyone.

Monday, a group of about 35 local citizens made their displeasure with the city's mosquito abatement practices known at a meeting of the Committee on Public Health and Safety (Eagle, May 1). These were not a bunch of dyspeptic cranks, but residents legitimately concerned about the nature of the airborne poison being spread, what its short- and long-term side effects are (particularly its impact on the frail and elderly), toxicity to other wildlife and who foots the bill.

In response, five members of the Pittsfield City Council petitioned the committee to review the current agreement between the city and the countywide program (for which Pittsfield, through a state population-based formula, pays about half). At the meeting, Public Health Director Gina Armstrong and mosquito program Superintendent Christopher Horton made assurances that all guidelines and strictures are being followed. That, of course, was not the answer sought by those who would have the program halted altogether, but the brouhaha over mosquitoes is part of a larger argument that will continue until the last mosquito dines on the last human.

There has always been tension between the public good and the rights of individuals, and finding a sweet spot between the two is a policy-making ideal that is almost never achieved. The mosquito controversy swirls in the same vortex as anti-vaccination adherents. The fact is that mosquitoes spread dangerous infectious diseases like the West Nile and Zika viruses, and while the complaints of those who find spraying repugnant ought to be heard and respected, the prospect of an epidemic engulfing Western Massachusetts should nothing be done is unthinkable; citizens with torches and pitchforks would rightly be storming City Hall wondering why the problem had been allowed to worsen. The answer that spraying would cause someone's butterfly garden to be disappointing, or that it might increase the severity of a senior citizen's cough might not be accepted as valid, with good reason.

The question was asked at Monday night's meeting about trying other forms of mosquito control, like doing everything possible to increase the population of bats as a natural insecticide. The answer from Director Armstrong was that the bat population simply can't keep up (they are among the slowest reproducing mammals); each bat mother gives birth to only one bat pup per season.

In short, city staffers administering the mosquito program have a thankless job. Mosquitoes are a nuisance, and we rarely think about them unless they are bothering us. If we ever do notice a dearth of the pesky critters, we certainly never offer up a prayer of gratitude that the county mosquito abatement program is working. As Director Armstrong said, "The bottom line is this is a disease prevention program," which is a clear declaration that she is not talking about convenience, comfort or even quality of life; mosquito abatement is about human survival.

A city councilor's job is to be a voice for his or her constituents, and the five who brought citizens' concerns to the attention of the Public Health and Safety Committee can be satisfied that they have done their jobs. Now they need to take a breath and think about their community as a whole, rather than the individual voices shouting in their ears. Nobody is thrilled with having to spread toxic gases around neighborhoods, but until a better way is found, the public good must come first.



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