In recent years, mosquito control teams have been using small planes to spray pesticides over much of the wetlands west of Salt Lake City International Airport.
The water that flows from the mountains is dammed in standing ponds and braided river channels all year round, creating an ideal breeding space for the annoying bloodsuckers who spread diseases and annoy people.
The cost runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but officials have come across an outfit that does the job for free: the U.S. Air Force.
The military enjoy doing spraying to train pilots while honing their skills for flying close to the ground.
If everything goes as planned, the Air Force will use a C-130, a large four-engine turboprop transport aircraft, in September to wield chemical swarms against the swarms of mosquito species that are breeding there. This emerges from an environmental assessment carried out by Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District.
“We’re really saving taxpayers a lot of money,” said Ary Faraji, the district’s executive director. “These are applications that we would run independently. But instead of the people of Salt Lake City paying for it, we’re letting the Air Force come in and make these requests for us. “
The district accepts public comments until March before making a decision. Regardless of whether the project is approved, the district will continue to airborne small aircraft using private contractors charging around $ 2,000 an acre.
However, some environmental and duck hunting groups have expressed doubts about the wisdom of applying chemical poisons in critical bird habitats just off the wind from Utah’s main human population center.
“There are only studies and studies of the neurotoxicity of these pesticides including those who plan to use them for this program,” warned Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “They’re not just theoretical concerns. These include epidemiological studies showing that people who live closer to where these chemicals are used are more likely to experience problems, particularly loss of awareness on the part of children. “
Little did he know that the mosquito district had carried out aerial spraying prior to the environmental review published last month. His group is working to put an end to this regardless of whether the Air Force project is approved.
Faraji said aerial spraying accounts for 10% of the district’s activities. Most of his work involves the targeted treatment of stagnant water in the city with larva-eating fish and chemical larvicides that are applied directly to the water.
“Every aspect of our business is driven by science, data, and facts,” said Faraji, who holds a PhD in entomology. “We take into account the entire ecology and biology of the species with which we are dealing. We look at effectiveness data. We evaluate different formulations for use. We really go out of our way to make sure we reduce our environmental impact and our ecological footprint. “
Which insecticide is used where?
The treatment area covers 43,000 mostly uninhabited acres west and north of the international airport. Much of this region is privately owned and used for agriculture and duck hunting. This includes the Gillmor Audubon Sanctuary, a bird sanctuary on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake, as well as the locations of the new state prison and the planned inland port.
While Faraji understands Moench’s concerns, he believes they are out of place because the district applies the pesticides in extremely low concentrations and in a way that minimizes risk to human communities and other untargeted creatures like birds and pollinating insects.
“I got into this game because I love wildlife. I have a passion for insects, ”he said. “And if there is something I can do to protect the environment and the flora and fauna we deal with, we will do everything we can to ensure it.”
To kill adult mosquitoes, the district uses an organophosphate insecticide called dibromine, which applies less than one fluid ounce per acre, well below what the Environmental Protection Agency has found safe, Faraji said. Agricultural applications contractually use gallons of this product per acre.
For aerial spraying, airplanes are equipped with a high pressure applicator that atomizes the product into billions of tiny droplets 50 microns in diameter or less than the diameter of a human hair. The droplets are released at altitudes of about 100 feet, sometimes up to 300 feet, to avoid bird and power lines.
“When they’re roughly on the ground where the mosquitoes are, the droplets are 10 to 15 microns in size. They are great, super small, ”said Faraji. “Our intention is that just one droplet is enough to hit a mosquito and have a toxic effect. But if the same droplet lands on a beetle or moth, a much larger insect, it doesn’t have the same toxic effect. “
By not spraying until after sunset, the applications avoid pollinators and other beneficial insects that are normally inactive at night. No spraying occurs at wind speeds of more than 16 km / h.
The district currently has private contractors flying twin-engine Piper Aztecs or Chieftains.
“It’s a very expensive process for us,” said Faraji. “If I do a 15,000 acre application, I see about 30 grand costs. I can’t possibly do that every week during the season. I’m going to blow my budget right now. “
Mosquito Health Threats
The district already expects its costs to rise if it files more applications to protect the new state prison under construction in the region. However, Faraji stressed that the air force project had nothing to do with the prison project or the planned inland port.
The C-130 to be used is located at Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Ohio as part of the 910th Airlift Wing. This unit is already deployed once or twice a year in Utah to apply herbicides needed to repel invasive cheatgrass on Utah’s 1.7 million acre military test and training track in the western desert.
Faraji staff select the areas to spray using a network of 30 mosquito traps that are checked twice a week during mosquito season. A trap can infest up to 20,000 mosquitoes in a single night, although around 300 can be enough to trigger treatment.
The traps found will be taken to the district’s new facility at 2215 N. 2200 West, where the mosquitoes will be killed in a freezer, then counted, sorted by species and analyzed for the presence of pathogens. District microbiologists look for three disease-causing viruses: Western Equine Encephalitis, St. Louis Encephalitis, and West Nile.
Mosquitoes that feed on birds and mammals are most likely to transmit disease.
The West Nile Virus, which emerged in Utah in 2003, has drawn the most attention. To date, this virus has infected 422 people in the state, according to an environmental review. In most cases, the infected person doesn’t even feel sick, but one in 150 cases the patient will develop a serious illness, according to the federal centers for disease control and prevention.
Moench noted that two cases were reported in Utah last year.
“They see the West Nile virus threat to public health skewed,” he said, “to the point where they really make the ‘cure’ worse than the disease.”
The medical group is preparing a science-backed rebuttal of the district’s proposal that not only highlights the environmental and health risks of spraying, but also warns that promoting resistance can exacerbate the mosquito problem.
“There are some studies that suggest that the surviving insects are actually rebuilding their populations very quickly so that they develop resistance to it,” said Moench. “But the surviving insects are actually more contaminated with the pathogen that causes the West Nile virus, and they have higher bite rates.”