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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New York City Battles Encephalitis

Air Date: Week of

New York City has begun a program of spraying malathion to control mosquitoes, responsible for an outbreak of encephalitis. Health officials say the pesticide is safe, but some residents worry that the cure may be worse than the disease. Amy Eddings reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. New Yorkers are bracing for the next round in the war against encephalitis, the mosquito-borne and potentially fatal disease which attacks the central nervous system. At least 3 people have died since the outbreak was first identified earlier this month. And about a dozen more people are infected. City officials have embarked on an extensive pesticide spraying campaign, using Malathion to kill mosquitos. But as Amy Eddings of member station WNYC reports, some folks are more worried about the pesticide than the disease it's designed to combat.

(Ambient voices)

WILSON: Right now we've got one sector left, right?

EDDINGS: It's almost midnight in Battery Park, the site of an old fortress on the tip of Manhattan, and the prefect setting for an attack against the city's number one menace: Culix pipiens, the mosquito that carries the St. Louis encephalitis virus from infected birds to humans. WILSON: Who's going to take Sector Three?

MAN: I'll take it.

EDDINGS: Bob Wilson, with the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, deploys his troops. Men will drive ten trucks carrying canisters of the pesticide Malathion through the streets of Manhattan, spraying as they go.


EDDINGS: Encephalitis is a potentially deadly disease of the spinal cord and brain. Children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable. This is the first time New York City has had an outbreak, and health officials were caught off guard. Mosquito experts and pesticides had to be borrowed from nearby counties that had more aggressive programs against disease-bearing insects.


EDDINGS: City officials use trucks and helicopters to apply Malathion in Queens, where the outbreak was first reported. But as the number of cases grew, so did the spraying campaign. At a recent news conference, Dr. Robert Nasci of the Federal Centers for Disease Control assured New Yorkers that the pesticide posed no health threat.

NASCI: Malathion is a toxin. It's a nerve toxin. We've known that. It's nothing that anybody's trying to keep secret. But because of the small concentration and the dynamics of the metabolism of Malathion in humans, the toxicity is very, very, very low.

EDDINGS: Despite these assurances, many New Yorkers such as Anthony Sepulveda were wary.

SEPULVEDA: It's probably the truth. But they make it sound like I could put it in my son's bottle and he could drink it. (Laughs) They make it sound like it's so safe. But I don't believe them. I don't think they even know.

EDDINGS: Malathion has been the subject of controversy before. In California, in 1981, Malathion was used to battle Mediterranean fruit flies. People evacuated their houses to avoid aerial spraying. Follow-up studies did not find any significant health problems. A similar spraying campaign in Florida last year had different results. There were 230 reports of health problems, including asthma attacks, nausea, dizziness, and headaches. Florida officials concluded 123 cases were probably caused by the spraying. Dr. Gina Soloman, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco and an expert on Malathion, says the city did the right thing by acting quickly to control the encephalitis outbreak. But she thinks people should be fully informed about potential risks.

SOLOMON: There have been episodes in the past, particularly among children, where children have had acute poisoning symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, sweating, and skin and eye irritation from exposure to Malathion drifting through the air or else accumulating on surfaces.


EDDINGS: Right now Malathion is poisoning its intended target. Ninety percent of the city's mosquitos are dead, according to Mayor Rudolf Giuliani. And he says spraying will continue to make sure the skeeters, and the disease they may carry, don't come back. For Living on Earth, this is Amy Eddings in New York.



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