Miami Zika Problem. To Spray, or not to Spray?


Which is scarier, Zika mosquitoes or the aerial spraying of nerve agents?

Evo Love, a Miami artist who lives about 2 miles outside Wynwood, noticed something strange while gardening. She was working in her yard barefoot, pulling down dead palm fronds, when she started feeling strange. She noticed a residue on outside surfaces including her door handle and the fronds. Then, she says, her tongue started to feel thick and stiff and began twitching.

“The best way I can describe it was you know how the corner of your eye will sometimes twitch, it was like that,” Love says. It went on for 4 hours. Love says she isn’t a complainer but started to get scared because it felt like her throat could close up. Finally, she broke down and told her husband, who told her that the county had been spraying for mosquitoes in the area.

“I’m not a doctor and I’m not a scientist. I am concerned about Zika and I’m equally concerned about naled,” she says. “I stand my ground that the powers that be should not be spraying this on us at all.”

After her experience, she spent hours reading on the Internet and trying to figure out what happened. She’s printed fliers that she’s distributed through the neighborhood to warn people.

After telling her story to a local radio station, other residents in the area have sent her pictures of dead fish and dead birds, casualties, they believe, of the naled spraying.

Which is scarier, Zika mosquitoes or the aerial spraying of nerve agents? Miami residents aren’t sure, but they are concerned. Also, maybe a little pissed that they had no say in the matter of to spray or not to spray. Business owners are getting jumpy as well, given the travel warnings that equal small business disaster when tourists stop showing up.

State and federal health officials say mosquitoes are spreading Zika in two neighborhoods of Miami, including Miami Beach. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told pregnant women Friday not to go into these neighborhoods, and to consider postponing travel to all parts of Miami-Dade County.

Reports are coming in about whether or not South Florida’s Zika problem is travel related or home-grown. The Florida health department’s website (as of 9/15/16) lists 639 cases of Zika not involving pregnant women, and 86 cases involving pregnant women. All of these cases are listed as travel related. If that is true, and all the Zika cases are the result of incoming travelers, why is Miami spraying insectide on mosquitoes? Well, it turns out that mosquitoes have been identified as Zika positive by the CDC.

The insecticide in question is called naled, or Dibrom, and it’s the same chemical that was recently blamed for the deaths of millions of bees in South Carolina.

In the tightly knit hamlet of Miami Beach, many residents are furious that authorities reversed a decision not to spray there for fear that high winds and high-rise buildings might make the spraying ineffective. They are worried about the health effects of the pesticide, a powerful nerve-blocking agent in the same chemical family as sarin gas, and collateral damage to bees, birds, and fish. So far, Miami-Dade County has sprayed twice there by air, with plans to spray twice more in the coming weeks.


“In Miami Beach where they sprayed it, they killed the koi in people’s ponds, they killed the migrating swallows, pigeons died, and who knows what else. People have been collecting the dead fish and dead birds from the naled spray on Miami Beach,” says Philip Stoddard, PhD, a professor of biology at Florida International University. He is also the mayor of the city of South Miami.

The CDC says naled is one of the few EPA-registered insecticides that still kills Aedes mosquitoes, the kind that are spreading the Zika virus. Testing shows that these mosquitoes have become resistant to many other kinds of insecticides.

There’s no question that naled, an organophosphate, is powerful. But health officials say it’s safe for humans when used correctly. On its website, the EPA says that when it is “applied according to label instructions, naled can be used for public health mosquito control programs without posing risks to people.”

About 10 years ago, the EPA took steps to limit the use of naled. It can no longer be used around homes by residents or professional applicators. Some pet companies also agreed to stop using naled and similar insecticides in flea collars after they poisoned children and pets.

Critics of the spraying strategy say there’s no evidence that aerial spraying will kill this type of mosquito, and there are no published studies to show that it works. In order for naled to work, it has to catch mosquitoes in mid-flight.

“When you have a daytime mosquito that’s largely near homes, in homes, close to the ground, and you’re spraying from a far enough distance from the street or from the air, you’re not going to be able to get them,” says Umair A. Shah, MD, the executive director of the Harris County Public Health Department in Houston.

“This stuff is not benign. It was developed as a wartime nerve poison. Then it becomes a matter of dose. But people vary in their sensitivity,” Stoddard says.

He says some people carry a genetic change, common among people with Iranian Jewish ancestry, for a condition called pseudocholinesterase deficiency, which would make them more vulnerable to the spray’s effects.

“People coming off of chemotherapy, people with chemical sensitivities, chronic fatigue, pregnant women shouldn’t be exposed. There’s reasonably good evidence that organophosphates raise the risk of autism,” he says.

While Stoddard takes issue with the decision to spray, he says people who don’t think Zika is dangerous have it wrong, too.

Mosquito control experts says naled also breaks down very quickly and doesn’t persist in the environment, which further limits its potential to cause harm. Biologists say that statement is misleading, however.

“If they are saying that, they aren’t being candid with you. It doesn’t go away,” says Stoddard.

Instead, he says, naled breaks down into another organophosphate chemical called dichlorvos.

“Dichlorvos does persist. It just sits there covering all the surfaces with an oily residue.” (Philip Stoddard, PhD, professor of biology, Florida International University, Miami.)

Houston is also a problem area, but officials have chosen not to spray the nerve agent on it’s citizens in a desperate hope to kill a bug. “We feel it’s not as effective. It’s not an optimal use of resources,” says Umair A. Shah, MD, executive director, Harris County Public Health Department, Houston.

Puerto Rico has also rejected the idea of spraying naled. In July, Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla ignored guidance from the CDC and said he would spray a bacteria that kills mosquito larvae, but would not authorize the aerial spraying of the more potent insecticide.

In 2012, the European Commission banned the use of naled in the European Union. The commission’s decision cites “potential and unacceptable risk” to humans and the environment.

When one spraying kills 2.5 million bees in one part of one city, it seems like a little caution is in order. And that is just one pollinating insect that has been amply reported on. What will happen to the agricultural industry when the pollinating insects are all extinct? This might be an extreme viewpoint, but can you imagine if we killed 2.5 million dogs in order to save less than a few dozen human lives? It’s a tough call, and it seems like we are fucked either way. One is reminded of an upcoming election that sounds equally doomed, with no great outcome for the country.

Dibrom, or naled, is made by ADAPCO, Inc. (an acronym for Allen, Dan And Pete COmpany), whose motto is “Creating value, growing together.”

There is probably nothing nefarious, or money driven behind the mass spraying of a nerve agent on healthy people and animals, but in case you feel like there is….

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