Environment
12:18 pm
Fri August 8, 2014

Mosquitoes In Miami: Is It Safe To Spray?

Credit freedigitalphotos.net

Miami-Dade's Mosquito Control operation is the oldest in Florida. Operations manager Chalmers Vasquez says it started in 1935.

"There are two reasons that Florida became a state," says Vasquez. "Mosquito control and air conditioning."

The concept of mosquito control is two-fold: Spray to protect from diseases spread by mosquitoes like dengue fever, and now chikungunya, and to make a bug-infested swampland actually livable for people.

But not everyone agrees with the spraying. South Miami commissioners recently voted to block the county from spraying by designating the city a wildlife sanctuary. South Miami Mayor Phillip Stoddard pushed for this saying the state law that mandates spraying can be negotiated into a more "nuanced" mosquito control policy. 

Meanwhile, Vasquez says his department is still looking into whether South Miami can legally end the spraying there. "We are still getting calls from residents in South Miami who want the mosquitoes sprayed," says Vazquez.

We recently sat down with Mayor Stoddard to discuss the issue. In addition to being South Miami's mayor, he's also a biology professor at Florida International University. 

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Why did you support opting out of the county's aerial spraying mosquito-control program?

People who are old enough to remember, remember a book called "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson that was the basis for starting EPA. In 1962, Carson laid out what happens when you spray indiscriminately for insects such as mosquitoes. You breed resistance in the mosquitoes and you wipe out songbirds and many other elements of the natural populations, the natural fauna. This is a general concern anytime you see aerial spraying.

Now for the mosquitoes here in Dade County, we have two different concerns. We have the mosquitoes that can potentially carry human diseases. We also have the salt-marsh mosquitoes in the mangrove fringe and we have the flood-water mosquitoes in the Everglades fringe. Those mosquitoes typically are a nuisance, but they do not carry diseases.

Miami-Dade County Mosquito Control along with other mosquito-control districts focus all of their money, or nearly all of their money, on knocking back the mosquitoes that do not carry human diseases. My argument  is that with these diseases moving hard onto us we need to be focusing our attentions on the mosquitoes that can and do carry human diseases, and they have to be approached differently.

You do not take them on by wholesale spraying. You take them on by water control. People have forgotten the old mosquito-control techniques of draining shallow districts, making some bodies of water permanent, adding mosquito fish. That's what really works in the long run.

The company that makes that makes Dibrom or Naled brags about how effective it is at killing moths. Well, moths are the primary food for the endangered bonneted bats, which we have in  Coral Gables, South Miami and Pinecrest, and when these little bats fledge... Actually, they're big bats. They're beautiful. When the youngsters fledge, they need food, and so if we've just done a mosquito spray they may find two-thirds of their food knocked out, and the young starve.

Philip Stoddard is the mayor of South Miami and a biology professor at Florida International University.
Philip Stoddard is the mayor of South Miami and a biology professor at Florida International University.
Credit Office of South Florida Mayor

Are you at all concerned that South Miami residents may be more susceptible now to mosquito-borne illnesses like chikungunya, like dengue fever?

Exactly the opposite. I think that the county is essentially squandering its resources fighting the wrong mosquitos. And so what South Miami is doing, in conjunction with the restrictions on spraying, is we have initiated our own program controlling these mosquitoes because we don't feel that the county is doing as focused a job on those mosquitoes as we would like to see. So we've begun surveying the entire city for derelict swimming pools. Those pools become a huge breeding ground for the mosquitos that carry human disease. Our code enforcement officers have already begun going door-to-door and checking on these pools. It is a violation of city, county and state laws to fail to maintain a swimming pool and allow mosquitoes to grow in it. So that's the biggest thing we can be doing.

We're starting an awareness campaign to get people to start focusing on these things themselves. Education and water control are the two best ways to control human-disease carrying mosquitoes, and to the credit of mosquito control, they do reserve a small fraction of their budget for education but not nearly enough in my esteem.

After speaking with Mayor Stoddard, we consulted with experts in the field who said it's common practice throughout the country to spray for nuisance mosquitoes rather than those that cause disease, and Miami-Dade County is not unusual in this regard.