A cosmic investigation...

In a scene truly reminiscent of the days of DDT broadcast-spraying in neighborhoods, a kid rides a bike in the path of a truck spraying allegedly harmless Malathion, allegedly to kill mosquitoes allegedly carrying West Nile Virus. If not for the newish truck, this photo would be straight out of the Silent Spring scrapbook. Photo by Ed Betz, Associated Press, thanks, Ed, a big Planet Waves cheer for risking your life for journalism.


Not Just a River in Egypt

Genexhibitionst | Maya Dexter

I HAVE AN OVERACTIVE EVERYTHING. You name it, my knee jerks to it, like some rhythmic tic that propels me through the world. My imagination, my suspension of disbelief, my faith, my fear, these are just a few examples of things I get carried away with. In this particular case, though, I refer to buyer’s remorse. Sometimes I agree to do things and then spend the entire commitment wondering what I was thinking. A few weeks ago Eric posted to the vision list, asking, "who wants to collect research and write up a piece on the West Nile Virus scare?" Like a squirrel on crack, I leapt at the job.

Two flights to the Midwest, a funeral and a college registration nightmare later, I finally got around to looking at the information. It took me about ten minutes to get overwhelmed by it all. Enter buyer’s remorse. But I am not one to welch, and to tell the truth it was good medicine for my overwhelm, something I could sit still and focus on.

Making sense of the hype around the West Nile Virus is kind of like putting together a 1,000,000 piece puzzle of a life-sized Jackson Pollack painting: It all sort of looks the same until you look so hard your eyes cross and you start using your intuition. Somehow this manages to come together to make a beautifully and disturbingly rational picture. Forgive my overactive sense of awe; I’ve never played with investigative reporting before. It is a powerfully addictive substance. My husband spent a solid week doing solo parent duties while I scavenged the web like a junkie, obsessively indexing and annotating all my findings.

So…all aboard the train of thought! Here’s how I got to my conclusion, which is, by the way, that the Pesticide Lobby has done their job well, and the money machine is hard at work, much to the detriment of just about everyone but the pesticide industry. Though I have learned to never underestimate the power of ironic justice, so I doubt they’ll walk away entirely scot-free.

I started at the beginning, at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene West Nile Virus information web page to find out what they are spraying, and what they are willing to admit about those chemicals. Once I finished giggling over the phrase, "mental hygiene," which brought back images of that old cartoon where the guy has a string coming out of both ears and the caption reads, "mental floss," I found some very useful stuff.

There are three that are the most commonly sprayed: Anvil, made by Clarke Mosquito Control, a pyrethroid insecticide made of sumitrin and piperonyl butoxide; Scourge, made by Aventis Environmental Sciences, another pyrethroid made of resimethrin and more piperonyl butoxide; and finally, a chemical commonly known as Malathion, an organophosphate insecticide you very well may have under your kitchen sink, distributed widely for the West Nile sprayings as Fyfanon, by a wealthy Danish company called Cheminova. Most of the information at Mental Floss seemed to be regurgitated from the chemical sales brochures. To their credit, NYC does make images of the labels available (collected for your convenience at the bottom of this article). To their discredit, they tout these chemicals as very safe. Sorry boys, ain’t buyin’ no bridge today.

Also, I looked for information about West Nile virus itself, which seemed kinda, well, anticlimactic really, for the menace it’s made out to be. The New York League of Conservation Voters states that, "The West Nile virus is much more deadly to wildlife, especially crows, than to humans. The human mortality rate for West Nile Virus typically ranges from 3% to 15% for cases reported, affecting the elderly more than younger age groups." The New York Department of Health says, "Even in areas where mosquitoes do carry the virus, very few mosquitoes--much less than 1% - are infected. If the mosquito is infected, less than 1% of people who get bitten and become infected will get severely ill." For this the state of New York budgeted $22 million dollars for 2001-2002 at a time when it is forced to cut budgets for more superfluous things like education. Don’t get me wrong, life is valuable. But to put this in perspective, 66 cases of West Nile Virus were reported in 2001, 10 of which were fatal (literally, about one in a million odds), whereas an estimated 35-50 million people each year catch the flu, and approximately 20,000 people die from it. Influenza is usually transmitted from chickens to pigs, and from pigs to people. Perhaps, if we want to maintain logic consistent with the West Nile decisions, we should be spraying for chickens as well.

But back to the chemicals: they’re nasty. Pyrethroids are classified in a category of poison called "endocrine disruptors." The endocrine system is what regulates our hormones; it includes important things like the thyroid, hypothalamus, and that thing we all remember from the sixth grade sex-ed movies, the pituitary gland. Mess with it and your boobs grow and your testicles stop producing sperm, regardless of your gender. In fact, over the past three generations, sperm counts in men today have been reduced to half of what their grandfather's were! And, of course, reproductive cancer rates go through the roof. Unless you test it on rats, which seem to be made of industrial grade stainless steel and can avoid getting cancer even when hundreds of little white mice are riddled with tumors. Pyrethroid as a neurotoxin and thyroid toxicant alone is pretty ugly, but it is paired with piperonyl butoxide, which stops the body’s enzymes from breaking down these chemicals. Yikes.

Malathion, officially designated a probable carcinogen by the EPA, is closely chemically related to sarin gas. Remember when they shot a little of that into the subways in Tokyo? Well, now entire drums of it are being sprayed in the streets New York. Malathion has shown to cause problems from a weakened immune system to gastrointestinal disorders to chromosome damage. This is the problem with the broadcast spraying of pesticides. No matter what the risk assessment says, not everyone is at equal risk. A person with immune problems is at a lot greater risk than a healthy non-smoker, for example.

I also found, in countless places, studies that indicate a strong connection between Malathion exposure and the development of Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

Oh, and these chemicals may actually be making things worse, because along with mosquitoes they kill many more insects that eat mosquitoes, so ultimately it actually increases the mosquito population. Another interesting note is that they seem to bite more immediately after being sprayed with Malathion.

So this is where I really hit information overload, and where I started saying to myself, "hey, this makes no sense. Why would they spray highly toxic chemicals that barely work from the air to save a dozen lives and probably make things worse for everyone else at the same time?"

My intuition, which occasionally talks back to me in a voice rather like Aretha Franklin, said, "Follow the money, girlfriend."

I did a Google search on the company Cheminova, which yielded this handy little document from the Environmental Working Group, an awesome eco watchdog organization in Washington DC, explaining how the pesticide lobby works. The EWG is essentially an organization that works to support a huge publicly-available document database and a bunch of people to raise awareness of issues using that information. Briefly, and you may recall this trick from Eric’s exposes on Monsanto, many of the most powerful people in the pesticide world have been employees of the pesticide lobby firm Jellinek, Schwartz and Connolly (JSC), the EPA, and assorted pesticide companies, in turn. God Bless America.

All of my understanding of the way lobbying works comes from reading Carl Hiassen’s beautifully ironic novels in which lobbyists are portrayed as villains. Jellinek, Schwartz, and Connolly was really my first non-fiction introductions to how insidious this industry really is. The EWG’s document describes what many of JSC’s most prominent employees are doing (and could undoubtedly be borrowed to update the roster in Hell). They explain that JSC, in their sales pitch, claims such triumphs as "JSC’s involvement helped move…two chemicals from a position where they were completely blocked to one in which they can be manufactured without restraint". Hope you weren’t eating or drinking just then. I lost my cookies too, for what it’s worth. Get a towel if you need to…or a stiff drink.

So here’s where the puzzle pieces start to fit together into a most gruesome image. In 1996 a piece of legislation known as the Food Quality Protection Act was revised to further protect children, who are especially sensitive to the effects of pesticides. The FQPA was shored up to do things like make more strict and uniform testing standards (thus requiring expensive new studies on existing chemicals), promote Integrated Pest Management (the more ecologically sound way to control pests) and add a ten-fold safety factor. This last issue is what would damn many pesticide makers, who not coincidentally assert that such a measure is unnecessary overkill. The folks at JSC took it upon themselves (without request and for free, I’m sure) to find a loophole in this legislation so that it’s clients might prove just how safe they are at normal measures to humans. JSC’s report in the spring of 1998 did, in fact, detail a most sinister loophole, in which the chemicals would be tested on humans. Six months later Cheminova started testing their chemicals on people. The EPA, who was already officially wary of organophosphates and had vocally considered banning them outright, wagged their finger, but little more.

Now, at right around the same time, in 1998, there were major West Nile Virus outbreaks in Romania, Italy and the Congo. The first case of WNV was not reported in the United States until one year later.

I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but this does seem a little shady when you think about it. We Americans have a really heady fear of death, whipped to a thick latte by the steam of the church and the marketing machine, among others. So it seems that the logic of JSC and Cheminova is apparent: if you can get the population scared over a lottery-like odds chance of getting killed by something seemingly at random (and there just so happens to be one handy), they’ll panic and beg the local governments to do something. So they start buying your pesticides at record rates, and you get a hell of a population sample for your studies to boot. The CDC is, after all, closely monitoring the situation in New York, and testing blood samples like crazy. Everyone profits, and by the time the public starts getting really sick, it will be much harder to make the connection.

There’s just one problem: the label indicates specifically that the chemicals are not to be used in bodies of water (which, of course, can’t be helped in aerial spraying) and that they are highly toxic to fish. This statement is backed not only by proper use laws, but also the Federal Clean Water Act. Unfortunately, it seems that may not be a problem for long.

I could go on and on about this. There are so many angles to the story: the pesticides are being used in violation of the labels, spray technicians in New York are suing for physical damages, the pesticide companies are loaning out their trucks for hundreds of dollars an hour while paying local untrained technicians about $11 an hour, encephalitis has a natural peak cycle of about 30 years, and so on. If you’re interested, the information is only a few Google searches away. Feel free to run with this. Look to information that backs up its assertions with documentation. The more informed we become the less likely we are to swallow the bait, and the healthier we stay.

I’m certainly glad I had a chance to learn all this, I have had many opportunities to inform people who had swallowed the media hook over the past couple weeks, and I’m suddenly noticing all sorts of creepy headlines that I might have overlooked before, like this one. And this one. My only buyer’s remorse now is remembering the part in one of Carl Hiassen’s novels where people start getting offed for putting the pieces together.

Let’s just hope this has a happy ending. ++

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