February 17, 2013

State board may relax pesticide notification

But the proposal is raising concerns among organic farmers and environmental groups.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The state Board of Pesticides Control is considering a proposal to relax public notification requirements for pesticide spraying, so towns can respond more quickly to control mosquitoes or other insects that can transmit dangerous viruses.

Director Henry Jennings said the board is recommending changes after consulting with the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and Maine's CDC on preparing for public health threats from West Nile virus, Eastern equine encephalitis or similar diseases.

"It would be a nightmare" for a town to try to initiate a widespread spraying program in the middle of an outbreak under existing pesticide regulations, Jennings said.

But the proposal is raising concerns among organic farmers and environmental groups about potential pesticide exposure to people and crops.

Under existing rules, cities and towns decide whether to conduct spraying. But the process is so complicated and cumbersome that municipalities haven't done adult-mosquito control work in some time, Jennings said.

Before spraying can be done, a town must notify all affected residents and get their permission for either ground or aerial spraying. Individuals could opt out of a spray program, Jennings said.

The proposed changes would set up two levels of response. If a virus is present in a specific area, a town could do ground spraying, but it would have to give advance notice to all landowners. Anyone who did not want their property sprayed could opt out by letting the town know, Jennings said.

However, if the state CDC recommends spraying, the town could go ahead with ground or aerial spraying, and the public notice could be more general, through media outlets or websites, for example. Residents still could request to opt out of ground spraying, but not aerial applications.

Both the advance notification and the exclusion provision are meant to ensure that the use of pesticide spraying will not catch communities by surprise.

"I have found that the combination of surprise and pesticides is a bad combination," Jennings said. "That's the last thing you want."

Even if the proposed changes are approved -- by the board and later the Legislature -- it does not mean that pesticides will necessarily be used for mosquito control in Maine. "In fact," Jennings said, "I think everyone is hoping we will not have to go down that road."

EEE is a more serious illness than West Nile. In 2012, there were no human cases of EEE in Maine. One person tested positive for West Nile late in the 2012 season; he recovered.

Rare among humans, EEE averages six cases a year nationwide. It is regarded by the CDC as "one of the most severe mosquito-transmitted diseases in the U.S.," with about a third of the afflicted dying and most survivors suffering significant brain damage, according to the centers' technical fact sheet.

"You don't want to get EEE," Jennings said, adding that coming up with the right approach for preventing these illnesses involves weighing all options before acting.

"There's this balancing act out there," he said, between the risks of pesticide exposure and disease.

Stephen Sears, Maine state epidemiologist, said towns should spray "only if there are very significant and critical human-health considerations."

He said the proposed rules changes reflect "the need to be able to respond to an emergency (in) a more nimble way ... to protect people, and quickly."

Compared with other diseases, both West Nile and EEE are relatively unusual, if not rare. The most common vector-borne illness, Lyme disease, is transmitted by ticks, and the CDC reports that 20,000 new cases are reported every year. That number probably represents only 10 percent of the actual number of cases -- most of which are never reported -- the agency says.

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