It’s hard to make friends when the choice is between mosquito-borne diseases and pesticides
By John Jemison, Chair of the Maine Board of Pesticides Control
Being a pesticide regulator has never been a recipe for winning a popularity contest. The art of balancing the rights and concerns of all constituents inevitably leaves all camps feeling less than ecstatic. But even veteran members of the Maine Board of Pesticides Control (BPC) were left scratching their heads over comments received during a recent rulemaking process. The proposed rule changes were intended to ensure that governmental officials have the ability to respond to a potentially serious mosquito-borne disease outbreak. Board members were somewhat puzzled when many people commenting on the changes seemed to think the board was advocating for widespread mosquito spraying. The board has never advocated for or against spraying: Its job is to prescribe the standards by which pesticides are applied in the state to ensure the safety of applicators, the public and the environment.
Mosquitoes have transmitted many diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, for centuries. For example, in the late 1870s, a yellow fever epidemic killed over 17,000 people in the city of Memphis. Most mosquito-borne diseases have not affected us in Maine, but that trend looks like it’s about to change. Research and monitoring indicate that serious mosquito-borne diseases, such as West Nile Virus (WNV) and Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), are on our doorstep – and with predictions of earlier springs and potentially longer mosquito breeding periods, the risk to humans grows. It is particularly troublesome that both these viruses are often fatal or leave victims with permanent neurological damage. In the 20-plus years I have lived in Maine, mosquitoes have always been a nuisance, but now they are a more serious problem. State surveillance in 2012 showed the presence of both WNV and EEE in mosquitoes earlier in the year than had ever been seen before. And that’s important, because when the virus is first detected is a key indicator of the threat of human disease. Sure enough, Maine’s first case of WVN was confirmed in 2012.
When in-state surveillance in 2012 suggested Maine might have a problem, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began to discuss control options in the event of human WNV or EEE cases. At that point, the BPC got involved. Key to our involvement was a 2007 rule change that required a property owner’s permission to apply pesticides. When the BPC established that requirement, we were trying to make sure businesses were applying pesticides to the right property; we never envisioned that the requirement would interfere with emergency disease prevention measures. Thus, we needed to alter the rule to allow the state to protect its citizens.
When we developed draft changes to the rule and put it out for public comment, we heard from many people who seemed to think the BPC was changing the rule because we supported statewide application of mosquito insecticides. One of our missions is to reduce reliance on pesticides, and we hope we never get to the point where any mosquito insecticides have to be applied. We just couldn’t have our rule interfere with public safety. If mosquito-borne diseases become a problem, towns may decide to do spot ground spraying. We are working to identify sites like organic farms to avoid application. It is our greatest hope that aerial application will never occur. Thank you for the opportunity for us to tell our side of the story.