A federal judge has dismissed a request to stop aerial spraying of the pesticide Naled in Miami-Dade County, describing the plaintiffs' complaint as "poor" and recommending they get a lawyer before pursuing further legal action.
Judge Federico Moreno, of the Southern District of Florida, gave the two Miami Beach residents who filed the complaint 60 days to amend it by clarifying why the case belongs in federal court and which laws they contend are being violated. But he said the dispute over the pesticide might be better settled outside of the legal system.
"In my experience, if you want to resolve something you have to talk," Moreno told the plaintiffs, Cindy Mattson and Dr. Michael Hall. The judge said that rather than pursuing legal action against Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez and Deputy Mayor Alina Hudak, among others, the plaintiffs should bring their concerns to county scientists and mosquito control officials, who know more about pesticide application.
Hall, a family practice doctor who last year spearheaded protests against the county's use of Naled, said he felt county officials had stopped listening to his criticisms. But Wednesday's hearing, he said, renewed his hope that concerns over the safety of Naled will be addressed.
"I think they heard another side because they were forced to hear another side," he said. "But this is about what works."
Following Moreno's decision, attorneys for the county invited Hall and Mattson to speak with them -- although not necessarily county officials -- about their concerns.
Hall and Mattson say they represent people in the county who are concerned about the pesticide’s possible health impacts, as well as unintended environmental consequences. A recent study from the University of Michigan found a possible link between Naled exposure and slight motor delays in about 200 Chinese infants. The researchers say their study was small and more work needs to be done on the pesticide, and they would not make a policy recommendation based on their findings.
But pesticide experts also say there’s evidence that other organophosphate pesticides similar to Naled can harm the neurological development of infants exposed before birth.
"At this point, we have some hints that make us concerned," Kim Harley, an epidemiologist who specializes in prenatal impacts of pesticide use, told WLRN in a recent interview. But she added there's been little research done on Naled specifically. The University of Michigan study, Harley said, is the first she’s seen on the effects in people who don’t work with it routinely, like agricultural workers and mosquito control technicians.
Naled has been used for agriculture and mosquito control in Florida since 1959. The pesticide sparked protests in September 2016 when county officials, acting on the advice of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies, began using it over areas of Miami Beach and elsewhere in the county to control the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus.
At that time, it was a tradeoff between a virus known to cause birth defects and a pesticide that the Environmental Protection Agency says is safe in the doses used for mosquito control.
But now mosquito control officials in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe say they’re no longer using Naled to control potential Zika-carrying mosquitoes. Instead, they’ve sprayed it periodically to manage populations of salt marsh mosquitoes that blow in from the Everglades following storms.
The salt marsh mosquitoes are “aggressive biters” and have prompted as many as 2,000 complaints to county mosquito control officials per day, according to Anh Ton, director of mosquito control for Broward County. But they’re not considered major disease carriers.
"We feel there is irreparable harm going on at this moment," Hall told the judge. "Right now, because the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has removed the Zika alert and emergency, there's no need to be spraying Naled at all."
David Sherman, an assistant Miami-Dade County attorney, told the judge the county clears aerial spraying missions with the CDC and the Florida Department of Health. He said the county does not regularly reach out to the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates pesticide application in the U.S., because the agency provides detailed instructions for applying the pesticide, which the county is following.
"Generally speaking, we should not have to speak with the EPA because the instructions are very specific," he said. Those instructions limit the use of Naled to an ounce -- about three tablespoons -- per acre.
The EPA is in the process of conducting a regularly scheduled review of its guidance on Naled. Updates, if there are any, will be made public by the end of 2017, according to the agency’s website.
Hall said he and Mattson plan to reach out to the county again through its attorneys in the hopes of having a "powwow" to discuss possible mosquito control alternatives such as traps or bat boxes to attract the mosquitoes' natural predators.