PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A group of citizens is yet again mounting opposition to the Berkshire County Mosquito Control Project.
A citizens group dubbing itself "Residents Against Poison Spraying" has petitioned the City Council to end its enrollment in the program. This is third strong push against the program in the eight years since Pittsfield joined. Those in opposition question need for the program, the effectiveness of the pesticides being used, and say there are health and environmental risks associated with it.
"Hundreds of Pittsfield residents over several years have indicated their opposition to the pesticide spraying in this program through multiple mechanisms of public input. Residents Against Poison Spraying strongly recommends to the City of Pittsfield, on behalf of all those city residents listed in the enclosed open letter to the City Council, that unless the council can find some definitive and binding way to disallow adulticide spraying in the city by Berkshire County Mosquito Control Project by other means, that the city must withdraw from this program as soon as feasible," reads a letter signed by 80 city residents and sent to councilors by Joe Durwin, who has long rallied against the mosquito control project.
Meanwhile, project Superintendent Christopher Horton and the Board of Health continue to reject the concerns of those vocal citizens. Horton spent four hours on Monday defending the program, saying the chemicals do not pose health and environmental concerns, that they are thoroughly examined and tested by federal and state officials, and that the bigger risk to humans is in West Nile virus or eastern equine encephalitis, which are transmitted by mosquitoes.
"Gasoline is basically 10 times the toxicity of what we are using and the amount we are using is minute," Horton said.
The program starts in the spring when staff looks for mosquito breeding grounds and identifies and rectifies potential standing water areas, such as truck tires laying around or beaver dams. In breeding grounds, such as catch basins, the project will treat with a larvicide to kill mosquito eggs.
"Every move we make on the breeding site is recorded on the GIS system," Horton said.
Throughout the summer, the group catches mosquitoes at various sites throughout the county and tests them for the presence of diseases. If a disease is identified, then the project will conduct an adulticide spraying.
Last year, the project performed 1,498 larval treatments in the city, treated 3,407 catch basin, and sent 122 samples to the state. Of those samples, 10 came positive of West Nile virus and the project launched three truck-mounted spraying responses in one-mile circumferences from where the tests were taken.
For Council President Peter Marchetti, it is that last part — the spraying — that becomes the "deal breaker."
"I'm hearing loud and clear from the community no spraying," Marchetti said, asking Horton if the project can be run without the adulticide spraying aspect of it. "Spraying to me becomes a deal breaker."
Horton, however, said the spraying is an integral part of the response. He said the spraying is part of a comprehensive program to combat the spread of such diseases.
"I wouldn't support a mosquito control program without spraying," Horton said. "Without the spray component, you'd be wasting the money."
Health Director Gina Armstrong chimed in, adding "This is a disease prevention program. The response is designed to be a phased response according to the disease's presence."
Horton says the adulticide dissipates in the environment when it comes in contact with sunlight or water. He said it is used at night when most other insects, such as bees, would not be out and therefore limited in exposure. He continued to say the level of the chemical used is equivalent to "a tablespoon over a football field" and not enough to have a negative effect on those other animals or humans.
And to those who say the chemical is ineffective, Horton responded by saying studies that show that is done in places where there have been large outbreaks like Zika. In those places, such high levels had been used that mosquitoes had built up a tolerance — such as a human can do with antibiotics. But in the Berkshires, not that much is used to do so and if that is found to be happening, a new chemical would be used.
Opponents, however, cite their own studies saying the chemical can persist in the environment for as long as 363 days. They say studies have shown it to be a carcinogen and poses detriments to a child's brain development, including a greater likelihood of a child registering on the autism scale. They say the chemical has been linked to killing honey bees and causing reproductive issues in birds and cancer in fish.
"The poison that is sprayed into the sir will stick or our surfaces, including the playgrounds where our children spray," opponent Alicia Stevenson said.
A woman who lives on Holmes Road told the councilors that she purposely planted flowers and bushes to attract wildlife. She had an array of species of butterflies and birds coming through her yard all of the time. But, since 2010 when the mosquito control project went into place, those numbers decreased significantly. She has no doubt that has to do with the mosquito control project.
"Recently, I have not seen any of that activity in my yard and I really believe we try to solve all of our problems by spraying here and spraying there," she said.
However, another woman said she lived on a lake in the Syracuse area and when the county opted not to spray, a 4-year-old girl died. She's lost horses to mosquito-borne diseases. She said the Berkshires have been lucky so far when it comes to those diseases, but she knows it can spread quickly.
"If we do not try to keep a hand on these mosquitoes that are carrying these diseases we are going to see people die, going to see animals die," she said. "There are a lot of people in Berkshire County who have very compromised immune systems."
Another woman said she couldn't even go outside because the mosquitoes are so prevalent prior to the project's implementation.
Meanwhile, another woman on Mountain Drive said there are private companies that can perform pesticide sprayings on individual properties if someone chooses. But, she doesn't believe her property should be subjected to the city's spray if she doesn't want it. She doubts the opt-out portion allowed through the program will actually prevent the chemicals from landing on her property.
And back and forth the two sides went for some four hours on Monday. Both sides agreed that any decision should be made based on "science." But, both sides also rejected the other's scientific claims. That's put the City Council in the middle of making a decision about the project.
The project is overseen by the Board of Health, which has twice opted to stick with the program in the face of opposition. But, the City Council needs to allocate funding for the project and the battlefields have now shifted away from the Board of Health and to the City Council. The budget process is quickly approaching and the opposition group will likely continue its advocacy throughout, hoping the city will halt the project.
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