Should Ocean Beach Spray or Pray?

Having survived six years of stage-4 colon cancer, the last thing my dear friend Jim Capuano needed last summer was a grand mal seizure followed by a ten-day medically induced coma, from which he miraculously awoke.

And it was preventable. He was a victim of the West Nile virus, which is spread by mosquitos--the same mosquitos that shouldn't have been there in the first place.

We are both long-time summer residents of Ocean Beach, one of the 17 communities on Fire Island, a barrier beach off the south shore of Long Island. As an incorporated village, Ocean Beach has the authority to opt out of the mosquito control program that is conducted annually by the Suffolk County Department of Health. So, for decades, while virtually every other community on Fire Island (not to mention vast areas of Long Island and New York City) had been getting sprayed, Ocean Beach was not.

For years the village played Russian roulette with West Nile. Last year there was a bullet in the chamber.

But the culprit is not the village--it is chemophobia, the irrational fear of all chemicals. And it was this fear that drove Ocean Beach to make a series of poor decisions over the years. And who could blame them?

Earlier this week, residents of Westhampton Beach were seen running into their houses after Suffolk County sprayed their town with Anvil without advance warning. So, what were they running from? The answer is nothing.

As a former organic chemist, I know firsthand how important it is to be aware of which chemicals are dangerous and which are not. Our lives depend on this. Anvil is most definitely not, yet you would not know this from the hyper-precautionary notice from Suffolk County.

Among other things, they advise you to close all your windows and doors, for 30 minutes, wash clothing that comes into contact with the spray separately from other clothing and bring all homegrown vegetables inside and scrub them with detergent. No wonder people are scared. This sounds like chemical warfare.

But it is nothing of the sort. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

Anvil is virtually non-toxic to mammals (including humans). Based on rat toxicology (an imperfect, but still useful method of estimating human toxicity), a lethal dose for people would be roughly 350 grams--about 12 ounces--if you drank it. Just for comparison, the minimum lethal dose of Tylenol in humans is about 8 grams.

Nor is the chemical in any way, shape, or form a carcinogen. Anvil fails to even make it onto California's Proposition 65 list of carcinogens and reproductive toxins, which includes dozens of common substances, including alcohol, Valium, and tetracycline.

Ironically, Anvil, on a scale of 0 to 5 (with 5 being the most toxic) falls into health category #1--"May Be Irritating." Yet, both DEET, which we constantly spray all over our bodies, and citronella, which we breathe when we light anti-mosquito candles, are in category #2--"May be harmful if inhaled or absorbed."

Does it really make any sense to put a more toxic (albeit still mostly safe) chemical on you rather than spray a less toxic one on the bugs? Keeping in mind that the active component of Anvil, sumithrin, is used in flea and tick collars, and directly on your child's scalp for head lice, is this really something to worry about?

No, it's not--something that we wish Ocean Beach had realized years ago.

This awful episode, however, did serve a purpose. It helped people to reevaluate the way they view risk vs. benefit--the heart of this issue. In this case the risk of not spraying far outweighed the risk of spraying--something that can only be gauged by examining the actual science--rather relying on fear, emotion and hyperbole.

And the story actually ends well.

After listening to us speak at a recent town meeting, the Ocean Beach board of directors wisely changed the longstanding policy. Ocean Beach will be sprayed today.

And in two weeks, Jim will be pitching in the 9th Annual Ocean Beach Softball Tournament. Even though we will be on different teams it will be hard to root against him.

Note: To see ACSH's Director of Videography, Ana Simovaka's poignant interview of Jim, click here.

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