They are voracious bloodsuckers that feast on their prey like the after-church crowd lining up at a Golden Corral buffet. Of the 60 mosquito species living in North Carolina, the Asian tiger mosquito is found in every county; it can transmit viruses that cause disabling diseases — West Nile, LaCrosse encephalitis, Zika, Chikungunya.
Mosquitoes’ tastes don’t discriminate based on race or class. But North Carolina — in its budget cuts to public mosquito control programs — does.
As part of 2014 budget cuts, lawmakers eliminated all state-funded mosquito control aid to cities and counties. In the mid-1990s, that amount had reached $1 million annually, but decreased to just $186,000 by 2012-2013. Even as North Carolina’s population has topped 10 million, the amount of state mosquito program money has yet to be fully restored. (After 54 years, the Salt Marsh Mosquito program was discontinued in 2011.)
A few counties and cities still spray for mosquitos; Pender County allocates a portion net funds from sales at ABC stores to mosquito control. But private companies — Mosquito Authority, Mosquito Tek and the like — have largely filled in the gaps, creating an environmental justice issue in who is protected from potential mosquito-borne diseases. Not only are low-income communities less able to pay for private spraying services, they may also be less likely to seek medical treatment if they do become ill. More than 16 percent of North Carolinians live at or below the federal poverty level — about 1.6 million people.
Stephanie Richards, a public health entomologist from East Carolina University, told the state pesticide board last fall that since North Carolina disbanded public mosquito control programs, private companies are thriving. However, she noted that low-income families can’t afford these services. At roughly $70 to $100 per treatment, which is generally done every three weeks during spring, summer and even the fall, the cost can exceed $1,000. Organic sprays are even more expensive.
When the US Zika outbreak occurred in 2016, five cases were reported in North Carolina, although the people had contracted the virus outside of the state. At the point, the Department of Health and Human Services was able to hire two entomologists to conduct a mosquito survey, the first in more than 20 years. (Five cases of the Zika virus have been reported in North Carolina this year, according to federal statistics, although as in 2016, the people contracted the disease elsewhere.)
Last year, Richards conducted a survey of more than 400 people of varying socio-economic levels in Pitt, Wake and Henderson counties. Richards reported that most people preferred that mosquito control be paid for by taxes rather than by homeowners’ associations or individuals.
“Rural communities more willing to pay for private companies, but most still prefer tax based payment, regardless of socio-economic level,” Richards said.
Two-thirds of respondents said they emptied water from outdoor containers; 45 percent replied that they also kept their gutters free of standing water and debris. Nearly a third applied pesticides themselves, while 5 percent said they hired a professional service.
The private companies’ job is only to spray, not to surveil or collect mosquitoes, largely the purview of public health agencies. Collection and surveillance can be helpful in determining the species of mosquito and if they are developing a resistance to the pesticides.
Most of the survey respondents said they would want to be notified before their neighborhoods were sprayed; many wanted the choice to opt out. (This is particularly important for home beekeepers, although spray can still drift to a hive.) These chemicals are regulated by the EPA ( a low bar, indeed), and as Beyond Pesticides notes, some compounds have the potential to harm humans, especially infants and young children.
“We need to get control on mosquitoes in North Carolina,” Richards said. “Disease surveillance should be done every year. We should take stock of private companies, too.”