Learning from past mistakes in the fight against Zika
It would seem that being an environmentalist these days increasingly means raising alarms about theoretical dangers at the cost of ignoring a clear and present peril. Look no further than democratic opposition in the Congress – and a veto threat by the president — to legislation that would address the devastating Zika virus.
Zika is a real and present danger that destroys lives. A substantial body of evidence associates the virus with microcephaly—shrunken head syndrome—in babies born to infected mothers. Adults bitten by an infected mosquito can develop a paralytic nerve disease called Guillain-Barre, for which there is no known cure.
The threat is real and growing. U.S. government agencies have warned that Zika could reach some 50 U.S. cities as the weather gets warmer. The South will be hit the hardest, but the infected mosquitos could reach as far as Sacramento, California and New York City.
There is no vaccine for Zika. The rational response would be to stop the spread of this disease through the only tried, trusted and effective prevention measure—spraying and killing the mosquitos that carry this nasty disease. The pesticides being used for this purpose have all been tested by the EPA and found to be safe for use. But minute amounts of these pesticides might actually drift onto waterways and so trigger a technical violation of the Clean Water Act. This is true even though the amounts would probably be in the parts per billion or trillion range—way too small to have any effect on human health or the environment.
The possibility of technical violations hinders prevention efforts, creating massive compliance costs for county public health authorities and making pesticide applicators vulnerable to lawsuits – a very real threat that has made some applicators unwilling to spray. In order to relieve these risks, the U.S. House passed [May 24] the Zika Vector Control Act, which would have rationalized permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act, but President Obama immediately issued a veto threat.
In response, Republican conferees have now produced a much watered down version that would give public entities a six month window of relief from permitting requirements — but would do nothing to solve the ever present threat of litigation. Even so, the prognosis for Senate is not good.
Environmentalists, who have been tossing around demagogic references to “agent orange” spraying in Vietnam and raising false fears about “long-term impacts on human health,” are in no mood to compromise. The fact is, it was exactly this kind of ideological antipathy to pesticides that has made us vulnerable to Zika in the first place. If not for environmentalist opposition to safe, reasonable and effective vector control, the danger would never have reached this level.
No less an authority than Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization, admitted as much in a recent speech emphasizing the peril of our present situation. “The rapidly evolving outbreak of Zika,” she said, “warns us that an old disease that slumbered for 6 decades in Africa and Asia can suddenly wake up on a new continent to cause a global health emergency.”
Remarkably, this United Nations official conceded that the activist campaign against DDT is to blame for today’s problems, explaining, “Above all, the spread of Zika, the resurgence of dengue, and the emerging threat from chikungunya are the price being paid for a massive policy failure that dropped the ball on mosquito control in the 1970s.”
It was environmentalists in the United States and Europe who had the luxury of pushing world-wide bans on DDT because the mosquito problem had largely been eliminated with DDT by the 1960s. Activists looked the other way as Latin America and Africa became a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The resulting malaria outbreaks claimed more than a million lives every year—for many years.
The West made an unconscionable choice in blocking vector control measures based on dubious scientific claims about the threat of DDT to environmental health back then. The preservation of human life, both here and in Africa, must be our highest and only priority. We can’t allow ourselves to fall once more into the Disco Era trap of thinking otherwise.
We have time to bring Zika under control – but only if we get serious about the threat and we act now to stop it.