A Q&A with Margaret Hudgings

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An interview with leader of local group questioning mosquito spraying

By Nathaniel Smith, Columnist, The Times

NSmithColLogoMy opinion piece “Mosquito spraying: why doesn’t the county want to talk about it?” in the Times of Chester County, August 31, asked many questions. Since then I’ve found many answers, including from talking with the County Health Department, and many new questions too. One thing I’ve learned is how complex this subject is, since it depends on the always lively interaction of the human and the scientific.

I think West Chester has a good opportunity now, as this year’s mosquito season trails off, for cooperation between citizens, the Health Department, and the Borough government (and the same could apply in other municipalities.

For now, I have written up an interview with Margaret Hudgings, who has been leading the citizens group (of which I have been part) that is dialoguing with the Health Department and the Borough in an effort to avoid public insecticide spraying if at all possible.

How did you get interested in the issue of mosquito control?

MH: I became interested in mosquito control in 2012, when I realized that the Borough was about to be sprayed with permanone, whose active element permethrin is listed among toxic chemicals in Greenpeace’s “Black List of Pesticides.” Our son became sensitive to chemicals in his early 20’s and so we as a family have become very aware of the chemicals in our environment.

When did you become an activist in this area?

MH: I became an activist this past summer when we realized that once again the County planned to spray in the Borough. After the last dose in 2012, our son became so ill he could not return to his home near Everhart Park for months. After consulting Mayor Comitta, I decided to create a petition and go out in the Borough to talk to our neighbors about their feelings on the County’s pesticide spraying.

How was the petition circulated and how many people signed it?

MH: We assembled a group of 5 volunteers who walked the southwest quadrant of the Borough with a petition asking the county not to spray. We got a 98% signing rate, something you never see! Clearly, Borough residents do not wish to be sprayed.

What are your worries about the pesticides being used?

MH: I looked on the Bayer company web site that provides information about their products and I got worried. They warn that permanone is highly toxic to fish and, in their original information, warned that it should not be sprayed within 100 feet of bodies of water. They also stated hat it should not be sprayed where it can run off into lakes or streams. Maps provided by the County showing spray areas seem to pay no attention to bodies of water, so that is a concern. In our recent interview with County Health Department officials, one of their representatives said they do not have a buffer around bodies of water but do shut off the spray when crossing bridges.

Permanone is also highly toxic to bees, which we need to keep producing fruits and vegetables. And it can be dangerous to cats and people, especially babies and children. Independent studies have associated use of permanone and other sprays containing permethrin with increased rates of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, endocrine disruption in children, and asthma. Some medical professionals have come out against the use of permethrin.

I am also concerned about the spraying of play equipment in parks. Some sites recommend the removal of play equipment and picnic tables before spraying. And is there a sufficient system for warning residents to close all windows, bring in all clothing and toys, and wash down surfaces when their street is sprayed? I hope that the County is dealing with such concerns.

Have you found good sources of information on pesticides and mosquitoes?

MH: The State Department of Environmental Protection at http://www.westnile.state.pa.us/ has data about mosquitoes in each County, recommendations to residents, and information about the larvicide BTi, which prevents mosquito eggs laid in stagnant water from developing into adults. Also, search the Internet for information from other states.

What is the current local policy?

The County Health Department says it must resort to spraying if mosquitoes that test positive for West Nile Disease reach a certain level in a given location. But in West Chester no human West Nile cases have been diagnosed this year—or ever, as far as I know.

There is proof that the spray kills not only mosquitoes but also fish, spiders, dragonflies, and other creatures that eat mosquitoes, so that ten days after spraying, the mosquito population can rebound and even become larger than before the spraying.

By then, sadly, the mosquito-eaters that have been wiped out and, with a slower life cycle, aren’t able to make such a rapid comeback and can’t cut into the mosquito population any more. So spraying can actually increase the number of mosquitoes after a few days.

How have other communities in the country been dealing with the issue?

Many communities across the US, such as Washington DC, and whole provinces in Canada have banned such spraying.

These communities have created excellent models that can guide us, suggesting that human cases of West Nile encephalitis must be substantiated before spraying is considered. They also recommend that local government, not the regional health department, be the determiner of spraying in a given town. For example, Shaker Heights, Ohio, has taken over the decision-making, not leaving it to the city of Cleveland.

When the criterion for spraying is actual human cases of West Nile encephalitis, I have not heard of communities where the spray has actually been used. They have found that West Nile is simply not a major problem there.

Such an approach aligns well with the West Chester Community Bill of Rights, which is on the West Chester ballot in November. A yes vote will assert the right to clean air and water and local control over our immediate environment.

What have you found to be the prevailing sentiment in West Chester?

Wow! We have had a positive response in the community. We have turned in a petition to Mayor Carolyn Comitta with 412 signatures collected in a week, mostly from the southwestern neighborhood where I live. 98% of people we approached signed. Most signers did not even know they could be sprayed soon. Some have health issues such as MS, Parkinson’s, asthma, and they asked how they could qualify for a no-spray zone around their home.

Many others have organic gardens and care deeply about the quality of their food. These people were angry that their efforts to be pesticide-free could be wiped out overnight. Others were concerned about the health of children and upset that Marshall Square Park was scheduled for spraying, where many children play, including groups from the Y Day Care and the West Chester Friends School.

How are local authorities responding and have you seen any changes yet?

On September 1, the Borough secured a moratorium on the spraying of Marshall Square Park, until Borough Council can address the issue. That was a wonderful acknowledgement of all the citizen concerns. Mayor Comitta will reconvene a task force that met a few years ago to address the issue.

The new County Health Director, Jeanne Casner, has assured us that everyone is on the same page: no one really wants to spray pesticides. Her office is now assembling information for us under a Right To Know request so that we can learn more. We look forward to talking further with her and her staff.

A topic we are trying to understand is whether in the past the Health Department has granted any no-spray buffer to people with health concerns. On our visit to the Health Department, one person was mentioned—a man in Phoenixville—who was not sprayed. We are wondering how he qualified for the buffer and whether this accommodation can be made available to other County residents.

What questions should the public want to see answered?

Are there exclusion zones for water and sensitive individuals?

How effectively are residents warned to take precautionary measures for themselves, their children, and their cats (which are very sensitive to permethrin)?

How many beneficial insects are killed along with (most of) the mosquitoes? Can this spraying be one cause of the recent die-offs in beehives?

What are the dangers to insect-eating birds and aquatic life?

How will the County and municipality organize future efforts, with residents’ participation, to cut down on mosquito populations?

There is evidence that many people have had very mild cases of West Nile since its appearance in the US in 1999. Most people don’t know they’ve had it or think it’s a cold. So it seems that many people may have developed immunity to the virus and that like chickenpox or measles you can only contract it once. So: what is the evidence for human immunity and how long does it last?

And the bottom line: do any benefits of spraying to kill adult mosquitoes compensate for the threats to our health and environment… and the more than $100,000 that the County is spending on spraying in 2015?

Do you see this effort as eventually going beyond West Chester Borough?

On September 8, a committee of Borough Council met to discuss this and the groups involved—residents, the Health Department, and elected representatives—and all expressed hope that West Chester and its task force can work out a way to avoid being sprayed now and in the future, through Borough action to prevent mosquitoes from breeding in storm drains and through education of citizens to destroy potential breeding sites on their own property.

If that model succeeds, as I really hope it will, then yes, such it could spread to other communities in the County.

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