The CDC's Problems Are Deeper Than Mailing the Wrong Stuff, as They Proved in Dallas

Sloppy handling of deadly viruses at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, including shipping a deadly virus to a lab by mistake, has spurred calls for an independent investigation of the agency. The head of of it concedes in a New York Times piece this morning there may be a "potential for hubris."

But hubris may be the least of it. Based on our experience here with the CDC and its role in promoting aerial spraying for West Nile Disease, we need to hope whoever does an investigation looks at the cozy relationship between the CDC and Big Chem/Big Pharma. After aerial pesticide spraying here in 2012, CDC experts rushed out a "preliminary study" showing the spray campaign had been achieved a 93 percent kill rate in the local mosquito population. Six months later the same experts quietly released a more careful study showing that local mosquito populations had actually increased during the spraying.

The second study nevertheless asserted that aerial spraying here had a significant impact on the overall mosquito population during the height of West Nile season. But when local entomologists drilled down into the footnotes, they found the study actually had found a possibility of no impact at all, a fact that CDC experts grudgingly admitted to me later.

It's not an academic point. There are risks in spraying. Dr. David Bellinger of the Harvard School of Public Health and Boston Children's Hospital has tried to warn officials here that the chemical cocktail sprayed from airplanes in Dallas contained substances that can have stealth effects on brain development in young children that may not show up for decades. He said these effects "do not necessarily bring a child to medical attention, but can nevertheless limit their futures by causing intellectual deficits and abnormal behavior." 

It's a point echoed by Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of urban and environmental policy planning at Tufts University in Massachusetts and author of several books dealing with public policy and environmental risk. Other experts told me that nocturnal airplane spraying is one of the least effective ways to kill mosquitoes.

If the aerial spraying doesn't really work that well and the attendant risks are considerable, why would the CDC be showing up in town doing traveling pedlar shows in support of aerial spraying, like the hurried-up 93 percent kill rate study that turned out to be so wildly inaccurate? I have no idea. Your guess is as good as mine.

I did notice that one of the CDC experts speaking in support of aerial spraying here is a former head of the American Mosquito Control Association, a private entity that provides grants to researchers and then forwards the studies they produce to government. I also can't help noticing that a "corporate sustaining member" of the AMCA is Clarke Mosquito Control, the manufacturer of the pesticide sprayed on us in 2012. That's not a smoking gun, but if I were investigating the CDC anyway I might consider it a whiff.

Let's agree to this much: If the problem is hubris, then the hubris probably doesn't stop at the shipping department. A general and hard-hitting investigation should look at the core culture of the entire agency.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze