What We're Spraying for West Nile Doesn't Work, Isn't Safe and Kills Every Bug in its Path

So on the radio this morning I hear all about the spike in West Nile deaths in Dallas and how the county health department will be on the job tonight protecting us by sending the pesticide trucks through three more neighborhoods, this time in North Dallas.

I just hope we all understand the spraying is bullshit. They don't have an ounce of research to show that spraying pesticides at night from a truck does anything at all to combat West Nile. I have a column about it in this week's paper.

It's a PR move, nothing more. The politicians want you to see that they're doing something. They love you. You should vote for them again. And you know what? You do want somebody to do something. This just happens to be something that may not do any good.

Does it do any harm? The stuff they are spraying is called Permethrin. Both the EPA and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation have just come out with tough new guidelines severely restricting the ways in which Permethrin can be applied, with one major exception: mosquito-killing operations, called "vector control," by local health agencies. They can still spray the hell out of it, indiscriminately, up and down streets, in spite of mounting evidence that Permethrin is by no means hazard-free.

Are they allowed to keep broad-cast spraying it because Permethrin does such a good job of preventing West Nile? No, it's because vector control agencies have huge local political clout, so they are able to carve out an exception for themselves.

Why did the EPA and the CDPR clamp down on Permethrin? Well, take just one area of evidence they were looking at. For a while Permethrin was the favored chemical for cat flea collars. But people kept bringing their cats into veterinary hospitals with tremors and seizures and sometimes because the cats had died unexpectedly.

Now the EPA has required that language be added to the full labeling for Permethrin saying: "DO NOT USE ON CATS. May be toxic or potentially fatal if applied to or ingested by cats. Accidental application to cats and/or grooming a recently treated dog may result in tremors and/or uncoordinated muscle movements. If this occurs, immediate veterinary care should be provided."

Permethrin is a neurotoxin. I think people have a tendency to assume the federal government, especially the EPA and more especially our own local elected officials who love us, wouldn't allow anybody to spray a neurotoxin up and down our streets at night unless they were double-dog certain it's safe.

Think again. The EPA "red sheet" on Permethrin, describing the government's full knowledge of the chemical, says: "EPA is not currently following a cumulative risk approach based on a common mechanism of toxicity for the pyrethroids. Nor do we have a clear understanding of effects on key downstream neuronal function e.g., nerve excitability, nor do we understand how these key events interact to produce their compound specific patterns of neurotoxicity."

That's like, "People can go over Niagara in barrels if they want to, but we do not have a clear understanding of what happens on the way to the bottom or when they hit bottom."

Permethrin does kill bugs. It kills them all, so I am already getting reports of beekeepers finding their hives dead the morning after a spray truck rolls by. That means the lady bugs and the butterflies and all the other insects that birds eat on are dead too.

Somebody will say, "Don't we have to do something?" No, not if we don't know what we're doing. We could just as well adopt my own anti-mosquito strategy where I live, which amounts to using foul language on them.

Watch out. The next stage in the escalation is going to be a call for spraying Permethrin from airplanes. Before that happens, we really need a robust discussion of its effect on people with compromised immune systems and asthma. Spraying from airplanes would be really crazy, like donning long snouts and black robes and marching around the walls of the city beating drums to ward off the plague. Actually, the snouts and the drums would be better. At least that wouldn't hurt the bees.