Pesky pest-control problem

August 02, 1994

Malathion is bad stuff, no question.

It's a pesticide, designed to kill something (in this case, mosquitoes). The less contact we have with it, the better. Like any pesticide, it ought to be used as sparingly and carefully as possible. Is the state Department of Agriculture, which runs Maryland's mosquito-spraying program, doing that? This is the question County Council members ought to be asking now that a grass-roots effort to halt the use of malathion has found its way to them.

A small group of citizens wants the county to stop paying $52,000 a year to participate in the state program unless it abandons the use of malathion. We think that would be a mistake and an overreaction, given the demand for control of these disease-bearing insects and the fact that agriculture officials spray malathion as a last resort and in increasingly small amounts.

So far this year only 374 gallons of the stuff have been sprayed in the county, compared to 1,680 gallons 20 years ago. To minimize dispersal, the spraying is done from a truck, not from the air. Before malathion is used at all, agriculture officials use HTC larvicides, larvae-eating fish and a false hormone to destroy young insects. Clearly they are trying to minimize the dangers.

This does not mean, however, that the county and the state should turn their backs on those who are hypersensitive to malathion -- or that they cannot reduce the need for it. Citizens validly complain that public agencies have done a poor job of educating people how to prevent mosquitoes from breeding.

The key to getting rid of mosquitoes is getting rid of standing water; as much water as can collect in a tire propped up against a house is enough to serve as a breeding ground. Do most people realize this? Probably not. Nor do most people know they can control mosquitoes by doing something as simple as putting up a house for purple martins, which eat the bugs.

The county should spearhead an education campaign, at minimal cost, that would include a pamphlet attached to water bills. That could be a kick-off for a mosquito-control awareness campaign with experts sent into mosquito-prone communities. Eventually, the county would reduce the number of mosquitoes, its mosquito control bill and the amount of malathion the state sprays.

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