When people in Sacramento learned they would be sprayed by airplanes bearing insecticide last week, they worried, threatened lawsuits, lashed out at officials, held protests, brought pets inside, called medical experts, canceled dinner dates and even left town.
In other words, they behaved perfectly normally.
As West Nile virus has marched across the country, civic leaders from New York to Louisiana to Colorado have turned to aerial pesticide spraying to wipe out mosquitoes, which spread the disease.
As the planes go up, so too does the collective blood pressure in many communities, with fears running the gamut from the jitters to downright panic over what the chemicals will do to people's health, other creatures and the environment.
The first time it happened was in 1999 when New York City battled West Nile. As planes and helicopters took to the skies, the Big Apple nearly blew a gasket, with New Yorkers protesting by the tens of thousands. As time passed, things quieted down again.
The pattern is typical, and very human, said Roger Nasci, an entomologist with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colo.
"What we see in Sacramento is a normal reaction for a community that has not seen this type of activity before," Nasci said.
Had they been living elsewhere, say Miami or Houston or New Orleans, they might not even have noticed, he said.
In many areas of the United States, spraying for mosquitoes is so routine that it is viewed as a basic service of government, right in there with garbage pick-up and snow removal and lighting the ballparks at night.
In Dade County, Fla., for example, aerial spraying for mosquitoes has been going on since 1961, said Monique Armbrister, public information officer for the Miami-Dade Public Works Department.
Miami sits just east of the Everglades, where mosquitoes are abundant and inclined to migrate into populated areas.
"In a tropical environment, mosquitoes are a way of life," Armbrister said, adding that people expect their government to do something about the pests. During hot, humid periods, the department can get as many as 1,200 calls a day from people requesting that their neighborhoods be sprayed, she said.
Not everyone in Miami has been comfortable.
After the World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001, some people grew unnerved by the small planes flying so close overhead. And the Public Works Department maintains a list of about 100 people who have asked to be called in advance of spraying so they can stay inside because of allergies or respiratory problems.
But other than that, Miamians are pretty calm about the spraying. "Mostly they want to have the relief from the mosquitoes," Armbrister said.
For other communities, aerial spraying has come as a shock.
In New York City, so hot was the decision to spray malathion in the summer of 1999 that former Mayor Rudy Guiliani not only was consulted but became a leading spokesman. The city's health department received 150,000 calls from citizens during the five-week period of spraying, recalled Sandra Mullin, director of communications.
"There certainly was a great deal of concern," she said.
The following year, the department ramped up its public outreach, switched from malathion to a product considered more environmentally friendly and applied it with trucks, partly in response to the angst about airplanes, she said.
"In public health, you always learn from previous experiences," Mullin said.
In some places, even ground spraying to combat West Nile has prompted civic fireworks. In Lyndhurst, Ohio, a suburban town near Cleveland, the City Council voted in 2003 to ban pesticide spraying for West Nile control.
"I certainly understand the fear," said Scott Picker, the councilman who pushed for the ban.
Fort Collins, Colo., had a tough go-round with West Nile in 2003. The city used ground rigs, while Larimer County sprayed from the air a one-mile buffer around the city, Nasci said.
Several months later, researchers studied the impacts. What they found was satisfying: After the spraying, Larimer County's number of West Nile human cases rose by 17, or 7 percent, Nasci said.
Meanwhile, two adjacent counties that did not spray had much higher subsequent counts and percentages of new human cases. Boulder County to the south reported 97 new human cases for a 26 percent increase, while Weld County to the east had 67 new cases for an 18 percent increase, he said.
Nasci noted that in Fort Collins, Sacramento and elsewhere, mosquito-control officials have sprayed chemicals approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency for use in residential areas. Doses, he stressed, have been minimal.
According to David Ropeik, who teaches risk communication at Harvard University, it is human nature to be disproportionately worried when a potential hazard is new or complex. That reaction is magnified when information comes from a source that is not trusted. The pesticide industry, he noted, has a long history of earning such mistrust, despite good things it also has produced.
Ropeik is the author of "Risk! A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You," published in 2002. He has seen community after community struggle with emotional debate about spraying to combat West Nile because the issue "hit those fear buttons."
In time, such fears often ease as people learn more and as their attention shifts elsewhere, he said.
West Nile at a glance
2005 human cases
Sacramento County: 47; Stanislaus County: 23; Butte County: 7; Sutter County: 3; San Joaquin: 3; Yolo County: 3; Placer County: 4
Where to get information
To report a dead bird, call (877) 968-2473 (WNV-BIRD)
Sacramento and Yolo County residents can request mosquitofish, report untreated pools of standing water, get aerial spraying information and sign up for e-mail notification of local insecticide treatments by calling the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District at (800) 429-1022 or (916) 685-1022, or at www.fightthebite.net
Placer County residents can get West Nile information and obtain mosquitofish by calling the Placer Mosquito Abatement District at (916) 435-2140. For other information, contact the Placer County West Nile virus line at (530) 889-4001 or go to www.placermosquito.org or www.placer.ca.gov/wnv
Butte County residents can go to www.buttecountypublichealth. org, or call (800) 339-2941.
Anyone with concerns about the health effects of spraying can call the California Poison Control number at (800) 876-4766.
Other helpful Web sites:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov;
California Department of Health Services, www.westnile.ca.gov.
About the writer:
- The Bee's Deb Kollars can be reached at (916) 321-1090 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Bee staff writer Carrie Peyton Dahlberg contributed to this report.