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Fri September 21, 2012
The Scary Math of EEE Prevention
What is a human life worth? That’s really the question at the heart of a controversy brewing over aerial pesticide spraying to kill mosquitos that may carry the viruses responsible for West Nile or Eastern Equine Encephalitis, known as EEE or triple-E.
So far this year, there have been six confirmed human cases of EEE in Massachusetts. That number may sound small, but EEE is scary. Make that scary. It packs a whopping 33 percent mortality rate, there’s no specific treatment (just trying to control the symptoms) and children and the elderly are hardest hit. As the parent of three children, I can attest that EEE gives me the willies.
What’s the best way to prevent it? Aerial spraying is one tool in public health officials’ tool belts. Banning organized outdoor activities in the evening and early morning, when mosquitos are most prevalent, is another. The final line of defense is making sure that if you’re out during those times, you’re covered up and using insect repellent.
But back to the aerial spraying. Some environmentalists say it’s simply not worth it — doesn’t kill enough mosquitos and causes a host of other problems. For example, Sumithrin, the pesticide being used here in Massachusetts, is extremely toxic to honeybees and also impacts aquatic life. In very high doses (probably not an issue here), it can even cause birth defects in humans and may be associated with breast cancer risk.
So is aerial spraying worth the risks?
Whether or not the Department of Public Health currently has the numbers (if they do, they’re taking their time producing them), science is capable of shedding light on how lethal aerial spraying is for mosquitos and how much it decreases human infection rates. Science also has the potential to quantify honeybee and fish deaths. Science can even try to put a dollar figure on human life (the U.S. government currently values a human life at somewhere between $5 and $10 million).
What science can’t do is this: tell us whether saving one, or two, or 10 human lives is worth the economic and ecological costs of aerial spraying. That’s a value judgment that individuals and policymakers have to wrestle with. This summer, state officials have obviously come to the conclusion that the answer is yes.
BOSTON PUBLIC RADIO