spraying for mosquitoes in a typical neighborhood
PHOTOGRAPH BY JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY

How Safe + Effective Are Mosquito Abatement Programs?

The bugs are annoying, but the pesticides used to eradicate them can damage your health.

August 13, 2015

Every summer many of us find it hard to enjoy an evening outside without being attacked by mosquitoes or, worse, threatened by mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus. It’s a good time to find out how your community handles mosquito control, says Jay Feldman, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. Otherwise, you could end up being exposed to toxic pesticides. And you might end up being plagued by skeeters anyway, since abatement programs that rely on spraying aren't as effective as they're cracked up to be.

Abatement Program Safety
"There's too much misleading information being distributed by officials on the safety and effectiveness of mosquito control, and the range of possible approaches," says Feldman. Government officials and industry representatives all too often assume that if a pesticide is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it's safe. Which is what they then tell their constituents. "Unfortunately, you don't have to dig deep into the scientific literature to see that the level of information we have on pesticides that are widely used is totally inadequate," Feldman says.

For instance, the most common chemicals used to kill adult mosquitoes are synthetic pyrethroids, which research shows are possible hormone disruptors. This means they may interfere with how your body produces estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid hormones. And it's not just a matter of what pesticide is used, he adds, but how it reacts with other chemicals in the environment. Also, people and pets can track these chemicals into homes, where they settle on surfaces.

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"Everyone knows that the best way to control mosquito populations is through larval control and reduction of breeding sites," says Feldman. But communities still spray harmful chemicals from trucks and airplanes, which is the least effective way to control mosquitoes. "To kill mosquitoes that way, you have to hit the mosquito in flight,” he says. “But when you consider time of day, changing weather patterns, wind, and so on, there are so many factors that can reduce the effectiveness of this method," he says.

"Once people know these details, they have a better chance to sort through the best options,” says Feldman. “But when an official simply says they're using pesticides registered by the EPA and they're safe, people can't see the downside of spraying." In other words, you often don’t have enough information to lobby for a better alternative.

What You Need To Know
Knowing which pesticides are being sprayed in your neighborhood, and the method being used, allows you to advocate for more effective mosquito-control methods. This ultimately can lead to lower exposure for you and your family. The federal government doesn't monitor or regulate mosquito control. Rather, each state develops its own rules regarding which chemicals are applied, how they're applied, and how the public is informed about it. Unfortunately, finding out your state’s methods isn’t always easy, considering the patchwork of public agencies that sometimes monitor mosquito control. Some states operate mosquito-control programs through the agriculture department; others do so through the department of natural resources. In states where mosquitoes spread diseases, such as West Nile virus or dengue fever, the health department may also get involved.

Feldman recommends first finding out if your state has a mosquito-control or abatement district. Not all do, but you can check by logging onto the American Mosquito Control Association's website. Your mosquito-control district can tell you which chemicals are used and what the laws are regarding notification of spraying. If you don't have a mosquito control district, call or email any of the aforementioned statewide departments to find out who handles mosquito control in your area. Ask questions, and voice your concerns. You may want to attend the next public meeting on the topic.

Depending on what you find out, you may need to push your public officials to use less-toxic "larvacide," which is much more effective than spraying to kill mosquito adults. Various larvacidal methods kill mosquito larvae before they reach adulthood. These range from eliminating pools of standing water in public areas to adding larvae-eating fish or larvacidal bacteria to local ponds and fountains.

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If officials insist on spraying, Feldman says, you can usually opt out of such programs. This way, when trucks come down your street to spray, they’ll be required to stop when they get to your house. This won't eliminate pesticide “drift” from your neighbors’ yards, but it will reduce your exposure. You can also organize your neighbors. If enough people oppose spraying, the trucks or planes will skip your neighborhood altogether.

In the end, the healthiest, most effective way to protect yourself from mosquitoes, mosquito-borne disease, and pesticides is with chemical-free mosquito-control methods, such as eliminating standing water, attracting natural mosquito predators by providing bird and bat houses, and wearing protective clothing or natural mosquito repellent when mosquitoes are active (at dawn and dusk).