The discovery of mosquitoes infected with Eastern equine encephalitis in New Bedford prompted the city’s mayor to lobby this weekend for aerial pesticide spraying of his community, a request turned down by state officials as planes took to the skies to blanket 21 other Southeastern Massachusetts communities in the battle against disease-carrying insects.
The aerial campaign has sparked concerns from organic farmers and environmentalists, who worry about the impact on crops, waterways, and other creatures, such as birds.
Yet many residents, including one family whose patriarch died last fall from the virus, are applauding the state’s swift decision to spray.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said he asked officials from the state’s agricultural department Friday for his community to be sprayed, shortly after learning about the infected mosquitoes, which are the types that bite humans, detected in his city’s North End. The area includes the Acushnet Cedar Swamp, a prime mosquito breeding area.
“They said the flight plans were already in place and that they could not change it,” Mitchell said. “But they said there may be another round of spraying later in the summer and that they might include us in that.”
Mitchell said the officials also told him that aerial spraying over nearby Freetown would “tend to drift over” to New Bedford, giving the city of 100,000 some protection.
“That’s not enough assurance to give me confidence that it would cover all the areas where these types of mosquitoes breed,” Mitchell said, “so I have a standing request that they expand their coverage.”
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which is jointly running the aerial spraying program with the agriculture agency, said Saturday that five of the 21 communities earmarked for coverage — Berkley, Dighton, Easton, Norton, and Rehoboth — had been sprayed Friday night.
The remaining communities slated to be completed Saturday night into early Sunday morning, including Acushnet, Bridgewater, Carver, East Bridgewater, Freetown, Halifax, Hanson, Kingston, Lakeville, Middleborough, Pembroke, Plympton, Raynham, Rochester, Taunton, and West Bridgewater.
Aside from New Bedford, infected mosquitoes that bite people have been found in Carver, Easton, Lakeville, and Rehoboth — weeks earlier than expected — and officials fear they will find more as the summer progresses. The disease is often fatal and can leave those infected permanently disabled.
Thomas J. Frain, a lawyer who lives in South Dartmouth, which also borders New Bedford, said he is unsettled by the large swath of the region to be sprayed. His community is not included in the spray zone, nor have disease-bearing insects been detected there. But he is concerned about the chemicals drifting and the potential impact on his 8-month-old son, particularly because of his family’s history of cancer — his father died of colon cancer, two of his brothers have brain tumors, and his sister was treated for thyroid cancer.
“The pesticide use, and everything we get, whether it’s X-rays or pesticides, they accumulate in your body,” Frain said. “Its’ not a one-shot deal. You want to reduce your exposure.”
The Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association on Friday urged the state to cancel spraying, saying the pesticide being used to kill disease-carrying mosquitoes can cause health problems and harm fish, birds, and insects.
State officials said the chemicals to be used are sumithrin, a pesticide that is combined with piperonyl butoxide, a compound that activates the sumithrin. The pesticide is also known by the brand name Anvil 10+10.
Officials said the product was chosen because it is effective against mosquitoes, it breaks down rapidly when exposed to sunlight, and it has a a “very low toxicity” to humans and animals.
For Kyle Fahey, the benefits of spraying far outweigh potential risks. Fahey’s stepfather, 80-year-old Martin Newfield of Raynham, died last September in his wife’s arms, after sinking into a coma from Eastern equine encephalitis.
“We realize environmentally that [spraying] may not be the ultimate long-term solution, but it is the best solution we have available to us right now to help combat this terrible disease,” Fahey said.
State officials faced sharp criticism from some Southeastern Massachusetts residents last year for opting not to spray after several pools of Eastern equine-infected mosquitoes that bite humans were found.
With indications that the risk of infections was rising, the state assembled a panel of experts to study the issue and revise guidelines.
That panel’s report, released last month, recommends aerial spraying of insecticide in an area when just one mosquito of the type that typically bites humans or other mammals is found infected.
Even with aerial spraying, officials said the risk of infection cannot be entirely eliminated. They recommend that residents continue taking personal precautions to avoid mosquito bites. These include using insect repellent, covering exposed skin when outside, and avoiding outdoor activities between the hours of dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most active.