Questions About Politics and Pesticides
Posted Wednesday, September 15, 1999
My contacts in the public health community assure me that New York City's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, made the right call when he reacted to an outbreak of mosquito-borne encephalitis by blanketing all five New York boroughs with insecticide over the past week. (Helicopters and airplanes sprayed the chemical malathion over Upper Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island; in lower Manhattan trucks roamed the streets putting out a fog of insecticide.) Without spraying there might have been a major outbreak of the disease, which can be fatal. But Giuliani has said the spraying won't stop; it will be repeated every few days for three to four weeks until the first frost kills the mosquitoes. Maybe I'm paranoid, but mightn't this be overkill? Malathion in low doses may be relatively safe, as lethal chemicals go, but it can't be good for you. And there are these more specific questions:
Politics? In 1981, California's governor, Jerry Brown, was irreversibly damaged politically when he resisted spraying malathion to counter the "medfly" epidemic that threatened the state's agriculture. This lesson can't have been lost on Giuliani, who might be forgiven if he has decided that nobody -- especially not his prospective Senate opponent, Hillary Clinton -- is going to get to the right of him on the mosquito issue. Still, this political factor would tend to push Giuliani into more spraying than is needed.
Speaking of California: When Jerry Brown finally decided to spray, one of his aides -- a popular, colorful Republican named B.T. Collins -- actually drank a glass of diluted malathion in public to demonstrate the stuff was safe. Collins is now dead. True, he died eleven years later (at age 52) of a heart attack. Still, Californians are by now spooked by malathion. "The public will not accept widespread aerial spraying," according to James Carey, an entomology professor at University of California, Davis, quoted in a recent edition of Pesticide & Toxic Chemical News. According to that publication, "in recent years, widespread spraying of malathion has given way to government programs of constant trapping and monitoring."
Asthma:: Even in the low concentrations supposedly being used, malathion can cause respiratory problems. Officials concede it might provoke an asthma attack. New York City has one of the highest incidences of asthma in the nation. How long before the death toll from asthma attacks due to the spraying exceeds the death toll from encephalitis -- which currently stands at 3?
What Frost? New York has had very mild winters of late. The "first frost" that will kill the mosquitoes could come in December. Will Giuliani spray until then?
The Jaws Factor:: Giuliani doesn't say he faced a tough tradeoff, with unknown dangers and maybe deaths on both sides of the equation. He suggests there is no tradeoff at all: "There's no point in not spraying, because there's no harm in spraying. So even if we're overdoing it, there's no risk to anyone in overdoing it." Even joggers who run in Central Park a couple of hours after it's been sprayed shouldn't give it a second thought. "They'll be OK," Giuliani says. Why might he take this un-nuanced stance? Well, imagine if he didn't -- imagine if he said, "Look, we don't think these chemicals are very harmful, but we don't really know, it's a tough question and maybe the best thing for people to do would be to get out of town when we spray 3,000 gallons of the stuff into the air." The economy of the city would, if not grind to a halt, at least suffer significant damage, especially in the tourism department. Giuliani is in the unenviable position of the character in Jaws who doesn't want to broadcast the possible presence of a shark near popular beaches at the height of the lucrative summer season. Didn't that guy get eaten?
Kausfiles's prediction: Even though Giuliani has said "the spraying will continue no matter what happens," it won't. A popular backlash will stop the spraying program shortly after the number of encephalitis cases levels off. The New York Post has already anticipated this "growing chorus of discontent" and denounced it as the work of "nutso activists" who "hate man-made chemicals." (Memo to Post editorial page editor John Podhoretz: I don't like nutsos either, but I like to breathe, and in midtown yesterday I was having trouble doing it.)
An occasional feature in which kausfiles.com suggests romantic possibilities between public figures who may or may not know each other. Fix-up #1 is a pretty obvious match:
Jedediah Purdy, erudite-beyond-his-years 24-year-old who dares to be mocked by championing sincerity;
Wendy Shalit, erudite-beyond-her-years 24-year-old who dares to be mocked by championing modesty.
Notes: Jed -- You're going to have to make the first move, buddy. And the second. Wendy -- We know he seems like a pious bore in print, but he rides a motorcyle! You can change him!
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Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.