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Dec 2, 2015 10:24 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

County Approves Continued Use Of Controversial Insecticide In Mosquito Wars

Dec 2, 2015 12:49 PM

The Suffolk County Legislature on Tuesday approved the continued use of methoprene—an insecticide that kills mosquitoes but can also harm marine life, a fact that has prompted two nearby states to limit its release in coastal areas—as part of Vector Control’s spraying plan for next year.

Methoprene is a larvicide that targets mosquitoes at the larval stage and inhibits their development, preventing them from being able to fly. According to Kevin McAllister, founder of the Sag Harbor-based group Defend H20 and a former Peconic Baykeeper, the larvicide can also inadvertently harm other insects and crustaceans, like baby blue claw crabs, that live in the habitats typically targeted by the spraying and are genetically similar.

In 2013, both Connecticut and Rhode Island clamped down on the use of methoprene, prohibiting its use in coastal regions, after traces of the chemical were found in tissue samples taken from Long Island Sound lobsters. Some have speculated that the chemical is responsible for recent lobster die-offs in the sound.

Mr. McAllister, who protested the decision prior to the legislature’s approval, has been trying to raise awareness among county officials of the larvicide’s harmful effects on the marine environment since 2007, when the countywide mosquito spraying plan was first put in place. That program, dubbed the Suffolk County Vector Control and Wetlands Management Long-Term Plan, relies on spraying methoprene in wetlands across the East End.

He went as far as to suggest that county officials cherry-picked data provided by a consultant hired by them to downplay the potential impact of the insecticide on maritime life.

“We identified 21 studies not included in the consultant’s review,” Mr. McAllister, who has been waging the same battle for the past eight years, said this week. “The labeling says it is very toxic to some aquatic organisms.”

But Suffolk County Vector Control officials maintain that methoprene is safe and that it specifically targets mosquito larvae. The spraying program was introduced to help prevent the spreading of mosquito-borne diseases.

“We studied methoprene very thoroughly when the impact study was conducted,” said Dominick Ninivaggi, the superintendent of Suffolk County’s Vector Control, when reached this week. “All the info we have supports the decision that methoprene has minimal effects on the environment.”

He explained that county officials prefer methoprene because they can target mosquitoes when they are in marshes and still too young to fly. That tactic, Mr. Ninivaggi noted, prevents the county from having to spray other chemicals in residential neighborhoods. Methoprene is typically applied to marshlands by helicopters with outriggers that fly low to the ground. The county also utilizes bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, another larvicide that is generally applied via helicopter.

Many of the complaints regarding methoprene have come from the East End, with East Hampton Town officials threatening at one point to ban the use of the larvicide within its borders. That turned out to be an empty threat, however, as the town cannot block the county program.

Southampton Town Trustee Eric Shultz also said he believes the chemical should be eliminated, though he added that he understands there is a lot of pressure on mosquito control officials to ensure the public’s safety. Fellow Town Trustee Ed Warner, who has made a career as a bayman, has his own concerns regarding methoprene as well.

“Being a fisherman and acknowledging its use in the environment, it’s very disheartening to me that they continue to use these pesticides in the marine environment,” Mr. Warner said. “There has to be another way of mediating these mosquitoes, and their larvae, while taking into consideration the crustaceans and the fish.”

The Southampton Town Trustees provided Mr. McAllister with a letter supporting the ban of methoprene that he presented to the Suffolk County lawmakers on Tuesday.

Mr. McAllister noted that Suffolk County has been a leader in the past when it comes to banning harmful substances. In the 1960s, it led the country in outlawing dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, after it nearly killed off the osprey population. And earlier this year, lawmakers banned microbeads, tiny plastic particles that are used as an abrasive in many health and beauty products, such as facial scrubs and soaps. The beads are not picked up by the filters in sewage treatment plants and can eventually make their way to aquatic environments, where the non-biodegradable plastic beads can be ingested by fish and other organisms.

Those stands, he continued, make him wonder why the county continues to think that spraying a chemical on environmentally sensitive wetlands is still a good idea.

“The county is ignoring objections from the East End communities,” Mr. McAllister said. “It’s all politically driven. It’s about nuisance control and quality of life. What gets sacrificed is environmental control.”

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