The New York State Department of Health confirmed a third human case of West Nile virus in Suffolk County this week and is analyzing several other potential cases. Still, some Town of East Hampton residents remain skeptical of both the efficacy and the safety of the insecticides that were sprayed throughout the summer by the Suffolk County Department of Public Works’ Division of Vector Control.
At the East Hampton Town Board meeting of Sept. 11, Deborah Klughers, a town trustee, referred to the recent spraying at Accabonac Harbor, Napeague Harbor, and Beach Hampton. She suggested that the town board exert “environmental home rule” and be more restrictive in what it allows the county to do.
“I’m not speaking on behalf of the board of trustees,” Ms. Klughers told The Star, “but for myself, as a trustee. I don’t think a few cases of West Nile warrants spraying of our marshland with a chemical that is potentially deadly to arthropods and beneficial insects. There’s a whole environmental question. It is deadly to the insects that it is targeting as well as lobsters and crabs. The biggest thing in my mind is alternatives, and why we are not using them.”
Also of concern, said Rona Klopman, president of the Amagansett East Association, is what she considers an inadequate effort by the county to notify residents prior to spraying. The county was spraying the Beach Hampton neighborhood via helicopter on Wednesdays at 4 a.m., she said, adding that residents were generally unaware.
There will be no further treatments for adult mosquitoes this year, according to the county’s Pesticide Application Notification Web page, but actions will resume in June next year. The page also lists “steps you should take” ahead of aerial spraying, advising children and pregnant women to avoid exposure “when practical. If possible, remain inside or avoid the area whenever spraying takes place and for about 30 minutes after spraying. . . . If you come in direct contact with pesticide spray, protect your eyes. . . . Wash exposed skin. Wash clothes that come in direct contact with spray separately from other laundry. . . .”
Also listed are the somewhat ambiguous “steps you may want to take,” which include thorough rinsing of homegrown produce before cooking or eating, and taking laundry, small toys, and pet food and water dishes inside before spraying begins.
“We have a lot of wetlands here,” said Ms. Klopman. “I had a great deal of concern about that and what they’re spraying,” based on the aforementioned warnings on the county Web page. “They don’t do anything to notify communities,” she said of the county. “What they’re spraying — methoprene — kills fish, it’s been affecting the lobsters, and I’m thinking, ‘How safe is this for people?’ It concerned me enough that I spoke to the town board.”
The State Department of Environmental Conservation authorizes the use of methoprene, a larvicide, and resmethrin, an adulticide, said Bill Fonda, a D.E.C. spokesman, but the county must submit an application each year. That application is examined by multiple departments, including those overseeing natural resources, wildlife, freshwater fisheries, and tidal wetlands. “When they are doing West Nile control operations, we go out and look at their operations, the product that they’re using, the legal certifications of people doing this, the area they are spraying, the personal-protection equipment, and reports of what they used so they’re not using more than they should be,” he said. “There’s a whole host of things we look at.”
Dominick Ninivaggi, superintendent of the Division of Vector Control, explained that the county has used alternative products, such as BTi, a bacteria-based larval-control agent, for more than 25 years. “There is no magic bullet in mosquito control. BTi is a great material, it has a lot of good uses, but is not a cure-all. There are situations, particularly salt marshes, where it’s not that effective,” he said.
Mr. Ninivaggi also disputes the assertion that West Nile virus is not found in mosquitoes that breed in salt marshes and therefore aerial spraying of salt marshes is unjustified. “Salt marsh mosquitoes are capable of transmitting mosquito-borne disease,” he said, including eastern equine encephalitis, “which we only see periodically, but they’re capable of transmitting West Nile virus. The Culex salinarius species is a salt marsh mosquito that’s been identified as potentially a very important vector for West Nile.”
In July, Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection reported the discovery of residues of methoprene and resmethrin in lobsters harvested from Long Island Sound. “Whatever they found in the lobsters in Long Island Sound didn’t come from us,” Mr. Ninivaggi asserted. “When they were sampling, we had very minimal use of materials, very far from where they were found.”
With regard to notification of the public, Mr. Ninivaggi conceded that outreach can be difficult. He maintains an e-mail list for people living adjacent to salt marshes. “The problem with notification for larval control is that we have to do it on short notice,” he added. “We have to get out as soon as we can after we find the larvae so they are still there and at the stage where we can control them. It’s hard to predict when the helicopter is going to arrive at the salt marsh, even the day, because it depends on what area we need to treat, how many areas we need to treat, and even things like wind direction. These things make it difficult to give people a meaningful time as to when the helicopter will be there.”
Ms. Klopman was unmoved. “I don’t care if [the county’s spraying program] is a matter of safety, to me it’s about communicating, being open, and letting the residents know,” she said. “After all, we pay their salaries and the budgets of their departments, and they’re not informing the people of what’s going on. They know it’s dangerous; it’s on their Web site.”
“I’m just saying, if we have to spray, use something different,” said Ms. Klughers. “If we have alternatives, why are we allowing the county to impose something which should be our choice? I feel like we should challenge them.”
County Legislator Jay Schneiderman said yesterday that municipalities could establish a local vector control program in lieu of the county’s program.
To the question of overruling the county, there are options, said Ben Price, the projects director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, based in Mercersburg, Pa. The organization assists communities in establishing the greatest degree of self-government possible, Mr. Price explained. “Certain prohibitions are put in place within local laws that protect the rights that are enumerated. The community would assert its rights not to be trespassed on. The general way we go about it is not to simply go to elected officials and beg them to adopt our draft ordinances. We get together with people, not to advocate but to assist in drafting, so they can be their own best advocates.”
The defense fund takes a rights-based approach, Mr. Price added. “The community has a right to access clean water, air, and food without being poisoned. Those causing those harms would be charged with violating fundamental rights.”