Bugging Out


The insects may be dormant, but the battle over the hazards of aerial mosquito spraying is far from done. That was the message delivered by more than a dozen speakers during a forum held last Saturday in Harlem, at the headquarters of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. One by one, they stepped up to the reverend’s pulpit to express outrage that Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in the midst of a blitzkrieg designed to wipe out St. Louis encephalitis, could ever have called a pesticide “harmless.”

“Don’t let this issue go into hibernation over the winter,” urged activist Eva Yaa Asantewaa, who says malathion caused burning in her eyes, congestion, headaches, and sluggishness. “We will not have finished this job until Giuliani has been held accountable!”

Despite such fervor, the spray opponents are facing an uphill battle. The issue has faded in the white mainstream, and it appears there’s little sustained ire among blacks and Latinos, either. Only about 100 people attended the Sharpton forum. “I’m upset with my community,” roared Jack Felder, president of the National Action Network’s scholars’ committee and the forum’s moderator. “So many empty seats and this is about your life! Somebody sprayed nerve gas on you and you don’t care!”

Malathion is indeed an organophosphate, one of a family of chemicals that operate by depressing an enzyme necessary for the transmission of nerve impulses. According to a statement issued by the New York Public Interest Research Group and two other environmental advocates, malathion was the second leading cause of occupational pesticide poisoning in the U.S. from 1977 to 1982, but is nonetheless “of relatively low toxicity.”

Millions of New Yorkers were exposed to the chemical this summer, and only a few reported any flu-like reaction. Nevertheless, the pesticide fighters argue its effects could be long-term, cumulative, or occur in unpredictable synergy with other chemicals. Jay Feldman, of the Washington, D.C.–based National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP), says that, after a large-scale assault on the fruit-eating medfly, Florida found “123 confirmed cases of gastrointestinal, neurological, and respiratory illness associated with malathion. That’s the tip of the iceberg.”

Even as helicopters crop-dusted the city, big-name eco-groups stayed out of the fray. After all, at least four people had died from the disease initially diagnosed as St. Louis encephalitis and later relabeled West Nile virus. “It’s a very touchy subject for environmental organizations that do not want to be seen as being insensitive to public health problems,” says NCAMP’s Feldman. Moreover, groups like the National Resources Defense Council say they don’t have the resources to focus on pesticides, which require expertise in entomology, chemistry, and governmental regulations.

The group that sprang up in this vacuum, generally known as the NoSpray Coalition, has about 18 leaders—”60 percent women, more than half people of color, a very loose group of people who are just learning what each other’s politics are,” says Mitchel Cohen of the Green Party. “We went in cold,” he adds. “I knew nothing about this, and since then I’ve been called a mosquito hugger.”

The NoSprayers are united on several points: that pesticides are dangerous, that the city failed to acknowledge this, that it exposed millions of citizens to hazardous chemicals by failing to give sufficient warning about the spraying. Beyond that, however, opinions run a gamut: Cohen thinks it’s possible the city faked a crisis to test its emergency response systems; artist Robert Lederman, famous for baiting Giuliani with hostile signs, floats the notion that the virus escaped from a government lab on Plum Island; moderator Felder believes the U.S. government has secret plans to target African Americans and other unruly portions of the citizenry.

(At the forum, a questioner asked if malathion might be shaped into pill form and administered to unwitting victims as medicine. “That’s your theory,” Felder said.)

But as is so often the case, paranoia begets serious work. The Greens among others, in conjunction with attorney Joel Kupferman and the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project, have filed a letter of “intent to sue” the city. NCAMP’s Feldman charges that if a chemical company had made the claims for safety the mayor did, it would have been grounds for criminal action. Among other things, Kupferman plans to charge the mayor with violations of the Clean Water Act, alleging that malathion must have drifted illegally over city waterways. (No one denies it is highly toxic to fish.)

The city’s health department says it is studying many alternatives to spraying, but Kupferman aims to force the city to go public with a plan for safer action should the issue arise again, as it almost certainly will. “With global warming,” says Ward Stone, head of wildlife pathology for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, which helped identify West Nile virus in crows, “it’s going to make the risk of arthropod-borne diseases increase in the coming decades of the new millennium. We can be assured that this will not be the last introduction.”

Meanwhile, New Orleans attorney Gladstone Jones, already engaged in a class action suit charging that malathion caused illness in Florida, announced at Saturday’s forum that his firm will consider launching a similar action in New York. Adrienne Buffaloe, medical director of Manhattan’s HC/21 Healthcare for the 21st Century, was also asking sufferers to come forward. Since the city apparently isn’t tracking reports of malathion-related illness, she’s trying to create a registry of her own. “We are making medical history here,” she said.

Such data may become increasingly useful. Pesticides aren’t just a farm issue; in fact, thanks to roaches and backyard gardening, they’re a major urban threat. Even without malathion, says Laura Haight, a pesticide expert for NYPIRG, Brooklyn and Manhattan have the highest pesticide use in New York State. “I really believe that pesticide poisoning will be the new lead,” she says. “People don’t know they are getting it in their food, kids in schools. Nobody knows what the effects will be.”

“The issue is huge,” says Peggy Shepard, executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action. “We have a large AIDS population which has immuno issues, and that makes a population very vulnerable to other kinds of toxins.” And “asthma is an epidemic and certainly pesticides are an important trigger.” Her group has developed a fact sheet on pesticides, especially as they relate to children’s health. Ironically, the populations most at risk to pesticides—the young, the elderly, and the ill—are also most vulnerable to viruses like West Nile.

“I’m glad Reverend Sharpton is holding a forum on this issue, it’s overdue,” Shepard says. “Often people like to say that people of color aren’t interested in environmental issues, but that’s not true. I think we need more leadership like that.”  

Research assistance: Rui Bing Zheng