Civil servant by day, insect slayer by dark

Mosquitoes: One man takes on a second job fighting the West Nile virus in Baltimore County.

October 10, 2002|By Jennifer M. Sims | Jennifer M. Sims,SUN STAFF

Keith Roberts of Essex spends his days listening to complaints, demands and suggestions pouring into the state delegate's office where he works. At night, Roberts, 49, does more than listen. He tackles one public concern head on.

Every Tuesday about 11 p.m. during the summer and until the fall's first frost, Roberts slowly pilots a state pickup truck through the winding streets of quiet neighborhoods in Rosedale. Resting in the bed of the truck is a sprayer that shoots a 25-foot tower of pesticide gas into the air -- a lethal weapon in the state's attack on mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus in Baltimore County.

"We're glad to see that somebody's paying attention to things out here," said Gary Adams, president of Rosedale's neighborhood association. He said mosquitoes are so rampant that some families in the community avoid stepping into their back yards.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture began spraying in the Rosedale area in mid-August after three pools of mosquitoes there tested positive for the virus in July. No mosquitoes carrying malaria, which were found this week in Montgomery County, have been found in Baltimore County.

Staffing shortages in the department led Roberts to his double life as a public servant by day, mosquito combatant by night.

It began after several people called Del. Nancy Hubers' office with complaints about mosquitoes a few years ago. In a call to Mike Cantwell, an epidemiologist with the Agriculture Department's Baltimore County field office, Roberts learned about the limited staff.

"He told me what the job was, and I said, `I can do that,' and I've been doing it every summer for three years," Roberts said.

It's not hard to tell when the mosquito truck is coming. Residents can see yellow caution lights and hear the loud humming of the spraying machine.

On a recent Tuesday night, Roberts eased the white pickup he drives past the abandoned back yards, past witches and goblins and other Halloween decorations set out in front yards, and past basketball hoops lining the streets. He squeezed between hot rods, sedans and SUVs parked on each side of narrow roads. He avoided a stray dog nipping at the pickup's tires.

Rounding one corner, Roberts chuckled at two intertwined teen-agers kissing as they leaned against a car. "A little lovemaking going on here," he said, as he flipped the spray machine off until the lovebirds were a dozen yards back in the rearview mirror.

Spray deemed safe

The concoction filling the air behind the truck is a mixture of mineral oil and the pesticide Permethrin. The state uses Permethrin or a similar compound, Sumithrin, to reduce adult mosquito populations. The Environmental Protection Agency considers the compounds safe.

Rosedale, a community of about 20,000, is not one of the 121 communities in the county that participate in the state's regular mosquito pest control program.

Adding to the concern in these neighborhoods in the southeast part of the county was the presence of West Nile last year, said Cyrus Lesser, chief of the mosquito control section for the state. Three cases of West Nile virus were reported in the county last year, including one death.

This year, 14 cases of West Nile virus in humans have been reported in the state, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, but none in Baltimore County. Three people in Maryland have died, the same as last year, though the virus has not been confirmed as the cause of death in any of this year's cases.

Most people bitten by mosquitoes carrying West Nile show no symptoms. Some may have mild, flulike symptoms. The rare case of serious illness in humans, such as meningitis or encephalitis, usually affects elderly people.

August start

County officials contacted Adams in August when the spraying began, asking that he notify members of the community and advise them -- as an extra precaution -- to stay in on the evenings when spraying was scheduled, which most people do. In rare cases, people exposed to the spray could experience eye, skin, nose or throat irritation.

The neighborhoods being sprayed form a rough triangle bounded by U.S. 40, the Baltimore City line and Hazelwood Avenue-Golden Ring Road.

Early this year, with only two trucks running, the Rosedale route often took until 5 a.m. "We did that for two weeks, and I said, `I can't keep doing this. I'm too old,'" Roberts remembers.

These days it's relatively early nights for Roberts. He covers close to 300 acres in less than two hours, and he is grateful he will to get home close to 1 a.m., a mere eight hours before he has to report to work in the morning.

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