Air Date: Week of September 24, 1999
Westchester county and some towns in Connecticut have begun large-scale spraying of the pesticide malathion to combat the spread of the mosquito-borne encephalitis which hit New York City earlier this month. Commentator Mark L. Wilson thinks there’s a better way.
CURWOOD: The mosquito-borne encephalitis that hit New York City earlier this month has spread north to Westchester County and Connecticut. Officials there are responding to the outbreak the same way New York did, by large- scale spraying of the pesticide Malathion to kill the disease-carrying insects. Commentator Mark L. Winston says there must be a better approach.
WINSTON: I can understand why New York responded to its encephalitis outbreak by mass spraying of the pesticide malathion. It's too late to do anything else. But we can't continue to cover vast areas with a white mist every time an outbreak occurs. Worldwide, we use billions of pounds of pesticides each year to kill agricultural, urban, and forest pests. In the United States alone, four pounds of toxic chemicals are applied for every man, woman, and child.
The effects of this strong-arm approach can be severe. Chronic pesticide exposure has been linked to immune dysfunction and various forms of cancer and birth defects. And each year, pesticides kill tens of millions of birds and fish, while clean-up costs run into the billions of dollars.
But there is another overwhelming reason to begin reducing our dependence on chemical pesticides. They aren't working. Pests quickly develop resistance, and significant increases in crop loss and human health problems are directly linked to our inability to deal with pests chemically. We need a new paradigm for pest control, based on reducing pest populations rather than eradicating them. On co-existence, rather than domination. But first we need to change our attitudes about pests.
Most of us are concerned about pesticides in our food, air, and water. Yet we are quick to grab a can of insecticide to kill a harmless bug in our kitchen, or use herbicide to nuke a few dandelions in the yard. About half of pesticide use in the United States is unnecessary, because it is directed at cosmetic problems, such as weeds, or the superficial appearance of fruits and vegetables.
We also need alternatives that are specific to individual pest species and not toxic to our environment. The solutions are available from our scientific community, such as parasites or diseases that affect only pests, or synthetic versions of the odors insects use to find each other to mate and which can be used to confuse insects and disrupt their mating.
However, most of these alternatives have failed to reach the marketplace for a host of regulatory, economic, and political reasons. It's time to re-evaluate our approach to pest management and set a reachable goal of decreasing chemical pesticide use by 50 percent over the next ten years. In the end, long-term planning to reduce pesticide use will serve us better than the current philosophy of panic and spray.
CURWOOD: Mark L. Winston is a professor of biological sciences at Simon Frazier University in Burnabee, British Columbia, and the author of Nature Wars: People Versus Pests.
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