The way our society responds to problems — be they social, economic or environmental — rarely prevents that problem from occurring again. We’ll quickly treat a cough, by temporarily suppressing it with cough medicine, for example, but not change the conditions that created the cough (e.g., maintaining healthy living environments, diet, exercise and rest). We tend to focus on the symptom, perhaps because it’s obvious or appears easier to address than the root cause or environment that created the problem in the first place.
But unless the root cause or driver of that problem is addressed, it’ll return again and again. This is true for most social concerns, whether it’s violence, crime or any illegal activity. Our response is often reactionary, using harsh methods to eradicate the problem’s most visible symptoms, while failing to focus on prevention or the treatment of the problem’s root cause.
Something similar to this societal response is taking place here in the Brandon-Leicester-Salisbury-Goshen-Pittsford Insect Control District, where I live. The extensive spraying of pesticide is reacting to a problem — the threat, however statistically small, of mosquito-borne disease — rather than trying to fix the root cause of that problem (i.e., a lack of healthy natural habitat that would keep the mosquito population under control) while simultaneously creating new health problems.
That spraying is also what initially raised legal concerns at Vermont Law School. The ensuing legal dispute was concerned with the insect district’s apparent failure to adequately “evaluate the impact on water quality and non-target aquatic organisms” from its spraying of chemicals. The legal dispute, thankfully, brought much-needed attention to the way in which we’re reacting to this problem — and how we’re not focused on habitat and ecosystem restoration, which might more effectively reduce the mosquito population.
The scientific community also supports this thinking; as the Trump administration’s own Environmental Protection Agency noted, “healthy wetlands are not uncontrolled breeding grounds for mosquitoes” and it is, instead, “damaged or degraded wetlands” that “provide ideal habitat for some mosquito species that carry West Nile.” Healthy wetlands, they note, better manage mosquito populations by ensuring there are numerous species of mosquito-eating fish, amphibians, insects and birds present.
That’s why it’s problematic that we’re spraying so much malathion and permethrin locally and continuing to damage and degrade our wetlands, making them more likely, not less likely, to provide ideal habitat for disease-carrying mosquitoes. These pesticides are considered “highly toxic” to wildlife and marine life by the National Pesticide Information Center, with malathion so toxic it could “jeopardize the continued existence” of more than 1,200 endangered birds, fish and other animals and plants.
These pesticides are equally damaging and destructive to human health, too. While there is variance of impact, depending on how much a person is exposed to the chemicals, the developmental neurotoxicity of malathion is well-documented, and we now know these chemicals can “impair children’s mental abilities.” Exposure during fetal development, for example, can lead to “poorer cognitive, behavioral and social development in children” and there is a “greater risk of children aged two to four developing ADHD if their mother is exposed to pesticides during pregnancy.” These are the risks facing our community as long as we continue a reactionary pesticide-centric approach to mosquito control.
There are ample ways the state of Vermont can support a safer and sounder path going forward, so that mosquito populations can be better managed — while pesticide exposure to humans, water and wildlife can be reduced. Several of these items will require more funding from the state, but they’re essential if we want to protect the human and environmental health of our community.
First and foremost, the state should explicitly prioritize, and support local government’s efforts in, habitat restoration as part of any mosquito control plan and help local districts protect, nurture and build their predator population (i.e., all the predators that eat mosquitoes). There are too many stories surfacing locally of dying bee populations, for example, for this to be left unattended. To reiterate the Trump administration’s EPA findings, it’s damaged and degraded wetlands that provide the ideal habitat for mosquitoes carrying disease. Since pesticides are highly toxic to wildlife and marine life, any effort to rebuild healthy habitat will need to remove or radically reduce the application of these spray-based insecticides.
That’s priority number one. If and when pesticide spraying does happen — which, under this new habitat restoration regime, should happen rarely, if ever — the state should clarify and formalize science-based triggers for applying adulticide. These science-based triggers, and only these, should drive the frequency and intensity of the spraying. The state should also require annual ecological and scientific assessments of the pesticide’s adverse impact to water and wildlife (contracting with a neutral third party to evaluate impact on an annual basis). Preventing chemical contamination of any Vermont waterway is critical in order to maintain healthy natural habitat, protect wildlife and reduce human exposure (as pesticide is currently discharged too close to lakes, feeder streams and wetlands).
Long term, however, we need to transition off the spraying of pesticide and for that, the state needs to help local districts pursue, test and offer natural alternatives. These alternative treatments (what’s used in Rhode Island communities, for example) could be scaled up for community-wide application with state support. The state could ramp up its partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on natural processes to reduce mosquito population and explore whether or not the Lemon Fair Insect Control District’s approach, which only uses bacterial larvicide, could serve as precedent for other Vermont districts. Since our districts differ in size, additional state funding for a larvicide-only approach would be critical. But better that taxpayer funds be spent on non-toxic prevention and habitat restoration than a cleanup of health problems from pesticide exposure.
Ultimately, if we want to solve this mosquito problem, more pesticide spraying won’t help address the root cause of the problem. Healthier habitats will. Damaged and degraded wetlands won’t. Further ramping up reactionary approaches won’t keep the mosquitoes away. This is a systems problem that needs systems thinking. All of the steps above are eminently possible. We can simultaneously protect people, our waterways and our wildlife. We just have to prioritize it.
Michael Shank teaches graduate courses on sustainable development and climate security at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and serves as the director of communications for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. He lives in Brandon.