The West Nile virus came to my neck of the woods last week, when four dead crows turned up in southern Maryland and Washington, D.C. Am I scared? Yes, the possible presence of infected mosquitoes in my lakeside neighborhood is worrisome. But even more disturbing is the irrational fear-mongering of environmentalists who oppose chemical spraying to kill the bugs.
An outfit called the Maryland Pesticide Network criticized my state's use of permethrin -- a common household insecticide -- to stop the disease from taking hold. On its Web site, the group cites permethrin-related health hazards including "synergistic effects on endocrine disruptions," reported by Tulane University researchers in the journal Science. The study claimed that combinations of pesticides disrupt human hormone systems up to 1,600 times more than individual pesticides alone.
Radical environmentalists wield the study to raise the specter of pesticide-induced brain cancer, breast cancer, and thyroid damage. But the Maryland Pesticide Network recklessly fails to mention that the Tulane researchers were forced to issue a humiliating retraction of their work because scientists from around the world could not replicate the results -- and neither could the Tulane team itself.
When their junk science ammunition runs out, the anti-pesticide troops turn to melodramatic anecdotes of harm. "Many people are getting sick" from the repeated spraying of permethrin-related products in New York this year, Sandra Levin, a board member with the New York City Group of the Sierra Club, told the Baltimore Sun. "Many"? The New York enviros publicized the single case of a woman who "lost her voice for six weeks after being sprayed." Was that caused by caustic poison -- or by constant kvetching? Staten Island resident Claire Felthem, the "victim," was quoted in several news stories and was miraculously able to find her vocal cords in federal court, where she testified in a lawsuit aimed at stopping the spraying.
Fortunately, the junk litigation didn't fly. U.S. District Court Judge John Martin rejected the plaintiffs' argument that the unintended drift of minuscule particles of the pesticide into the waters surrounding New York City violated the federal Clean Water Act. Martin ruled that the claim "stretches the language of the Clean Water Act beyond its reasonable meaning." Indeed, the enviros' reasoning would lead to banning everything from bubble bath and Drano to hairspray and Lysol.
This weekend, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader will gather with junk scientists in New York to protest further spraying. This anti-pesticide patrol claims to work for the most vulnerable members of society. But it is children and the elderly who are most at risk of West Nile-related illnesses that will spread if infected mosquitoes are not controlled. The enviros callously dismiss West Nile symptoms as "mild." Tell that to the seven people who died and the 62 people who became seriously ill last year as a result of encephalitis, meningitis, and other central nervous system diseases caused by West Nile infections. Tell that to the 17 people who contracted similar illnesses this year, and to the family of the 82-year-old Hackensack, N.J., man who became this year's first West Nile casualty just four weeks ago.
Some glib opponents of West Nile spraying advise people to lock themselves indoors and drain their pools (they are silent, of course, on one of the most aggravating sources of standing water: government-created wetlands.) Other environmentalists say they favor "safe and affordable" alternatives to the chemicals being sprayed. The claim is disingenuous at best, deadly at worst. The pesticides used to combat the West Nile virus are all federally approved chemicals that meet safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency at levels up to 1,000 times safer than the level at which the EPA finds the pesticide has no adverse effect.
Moreover, these chemicals are among the very alternatives advocated by environmentalists who succeeded in banning previous generations of insecticides, such as DDT. Now, as the West Nile virus spreads across the country, threatening both people and wildlife, the anti-pesticide activists want to take away the few remaining weapons against mosquito-borne diseases.
The truth: Environmentalists won't be satisfied until we're back in loincloths, stripped of modern technology, huddled in caves, armed only with oxtail flyswatters and voodoo chants to keep dangerous bugs away.