Who Protested the Malathion?


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The Mayor of the City of New York and his Office of Emergency Management had just sprayed me and my neighbors with malathion to kill mosquitoes believed to carry St. Louis encephalitis. This happened four times in 15 minutes.


Now the same geniuses tell us the illness is really West Nile fever. Its symptoms, though similar, are much milder than those of St. Louis encephalitis: fever and a headache, although in rare cases it, too, can cause neurological disorders and death, with the elderly, the young and persons with weakened immune systems being most vulnerable. I am sure these experts graduated from the same schools as the guys who gave us the swine flu scare of a generation ago where the vaccination was worse than the disease.


Malathion kills mosquitoes. It also kills fish and other insects (including a number of the so-called useful insects). It doesn't do us any good, either: An Environmental Protection Agency memorandum expresses concern that it is a carcinogen. The Mayor's flunkies have told us it's safe, but we have to close our windows and turn off our air conditioners while they're spraying.


Every announced schedule for spraying was discarded. Finally, the helicopters went out, willy-nilly. On Staten Island, they sprayed pools, backyards, golfers, picnickers and even commuters like me. People who had scrupulously stayed indoors with their windows shut and air conditioners off at the scheduled times found themselves doused with insecticide in broad daylight. My city councilman, Jay O'Donovan, says he received reports of dead birds, dead fish and dead squirrels. A decorated Vietnam War veteran, O'Donovan talked of how the city was destroying the village to save it. Local observers also noticed a sharp sudden drop in the number of dragonflies and other natural predators of mosquitoes after the sprayings.


They also sprayed our parks and waterways and apparently managed to kill a lot of fish. The Clove Lakes are a chain of small lakes forming the centerpiece of Clove Lakes Park in north-central Staten Island. Between Friday, Sept. 24, and Wednesday, Sept. 29, nearly 1300 dead fish?sunfish, catfish, bluegills, pumpkin seeds and yellow perch?surfaced in the wake of the spraying. On the 29th, the director of the Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve admitted that his fish were dying, too. A local newspaper quoted him as saying, "I've never found dead fish in this quantity before." Thank goodness for him that he's not a city employee: his reward for telling the truth would have been something like immediate, forcible and permanent reassignment to sweeping up used condoms in an East New York playground. And yet the city's experts are now speculating that the fish were not poisoned by malathion, but choked by sediments stirred up by the rains of Tropical Storm Floyd.


Spraying lakes and ponds with malathion is forbidden by state regulations. The state is also responsible for enforcing the regulations by seeing that the city follows the rules set forth for each pesticide's use. State environmental officials have been involved "in an advisory capacity" in the planning of the spray campaign. However, according to a local newspaper, a spokeswoman for the State Environmental Conservation Dept. excused the agency's inaction, claiming, "We can't be everywhere." The Mayor's spokeswoman referred all questions to the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. The Office of Emergency Management did not return any reporters' calls.


Our environmentalists have done little but talk. At least one newspaper suggested they were afraid of the Mayor, who would paint them as favoring mosquitoes over people. There have been no demonstrations, no picketing, no mass arrests?nothing. The Staten Island Register, a community paper from Grasmere, reported that "The New York Public Interest Research Group and the New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides are urging the city to stop spraying the insecticide..." and that the Audubon Society is demanding that the city stop the spraying immediately. Perhaps if they hold their breath and turn blue and fall down and die, the Mayor will notice. I also understand the Green Party is taking the city to court over blanketing the five boroughs with pesticides. This is a little late in the game for me and seven million other people. Maybe they're doing it in the hope of augmenting the party treasury with damages.


There is a faster way. Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules, the CPLR, offers any citizen the opportunity to seek injunctive relief in the courts from government action. All it takes is the filing fees, a court-provided form called a request for judicial intervention (an RJI) and two forms one can write on a personal computer: an order to show cause with temporary restraining order, which is a draft order for the judge's signature providing a temporary injunction relief?in this case, stopping the city from spraying its own people with insecticide?and an affirmation or affidavit setting forth facts sufficient to justify the temporary restraints. Exhibits are extra, but always helpful. Article 78 codifies an old-fashioned common-law remedy once called a writ of mandamus, a restraint on tyrannical bureaucrats since the Middle Ages. It's probably insufficiently progressive for the Greenies, so they'd rather not. I have not read a single report that anyone tried this.


Probably the Mayor, who seems to confuse force and virility, felt that any action, even spraying the populace with a carcinogen, was better than no action at all. Irrational cuts in the Health Dept.'s budget for pest control merely demonstrate the same good judgment. It is not merely that the city has fewer than half the pest control workers in 1999 than it had in 1991. The city can no longer test patients locally for the St. Louis encephalitis virus. According to a recent interview in a local newspaper, "Antigen samples at the lab that are used to do the testing are no longer maintained there, so blood must be sent to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, for testing." Also, it appears that the city no longer keeps "sentinel species"?animals peculiarly susceptible to certain diseases, whose illnesses or deaths provide early warning of disease outbreaks.


By contrast, Houston, TX, which once had problems with mosquito-borne illnesses, concentrated their efforts on controlling the mosquito population in the city's sewer system and on monitoring programs to identify viruses in the mosquito population before they can enter humans. Houston has now abandoned pesticide spraying.


Most of the 25 New York City residents reported to be infected with this illness as of Sept. 29 were bitten by mosquitoes in July or August. Sixteen have been discharged from hospitals, six are hospitalized and three are dead. Seven million have been sprayed with malathion and other pesticides from the air. There have been no recent reports of the disease. The Mayor's office, of course, credits the spraying. Others credit cooler weather.


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