The state Board of Pesticides Control is considering a proposal to relax public notification requirements for pesticide spraying, so towns can respond more quickly to control mosquitoes or other insects that can transmit dangerous viruses.
Director Henry Jennings said the board is recommending changes after consulting with the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and Maine’s CDC on preparing for public health threats from West Nile virus, Eastern equine encephalitis or similar diseases.
“It would be a nightmare” for a town to try to initiate a widespread spraying program in the middle of an outbreak under existing pesticide regulations, Jennings said.
But the proposal is raising concerns among organic farmers and environmental groups about potential pesticide exposure to people and crops.
Under existing rules, cities and towns decide whether to conduct spraying. But the process is so complicated and cumbersome that municipalities haven’t done adult-mosquito control work in some time, Jennings said.
Before spraying can be done, a town must notify all affected residents and get their permission for either ground or aerial spraying. Individuals could opt out of a spray program, Jennings said.
The proposed changes would set up two levels of response. If a virus is present in a specific area, a town could do ground spraying, but it would have to give advance notice to all landowners. Anyone who did not want their property sprayed could opt out by letting the town know, Jennings said.
However, if the state CDC recommends spraying, the town could go ahead with ground or aerial spraying, and the public notice could be more general, through media outlets or websites, for example. Residents still could request to opt out of ground spraying, but not aerial applications.
Both the advance notification and the exclusion provision are meant to ensure that the use of pesticide spraying will not catch communities by surprise.
“I have found that the combination of surprise and pesticides is a bad combination,” Jennings said. “That’s the last thing you want.”
Even if the proposed changes are approved — by the board and later the Legislature — it does not mean that pesticides will necessarily be used for mosquito control in Maine. “In fact,” Jennings said, “I think everyone is hoping we will not have to go down that road.”
EEE is a more serious illness than West Nile. In 2012, there were no human cases of EEE in Maine. One person tested positive for West Nile late in the 2012 season; he recovered.
Rare among humans, EEE averages six cases a year nationwide. It is regarded by the CDC as “one of the most severe mosquito-transmitted diseases in the U.S.,” with about a third of the afflicted dying and most survivors suffering significant brain damage, according to the centers’ technical fact sheet.
“You don’t want to get EEE,” Jennings said, adding that coming up with the right approach for preventing these illnesses involves weighing all options before acting.
“There’s this balancing act out there,” he said, between the risks of pesticide exposure and disease.
Stephen Sears, Maine state epidemiologist, said towns should spray “only if there are very significant and critical human-health considerations.”
He said the proposed rules changes reflect “the need to be able to respond to an emergency (in) a more nimble way … to protect people, and quickly.”
Compared with other diseases, both West Nile and EEE are relatively unusual, if not rare. The most common vector-borne illness, Lyme disease, is transmitted by ticks, and the CDC reports that 20,000 new cases are reported every year. That number probably represents only 10 percent of the actual number of cases — most of which are never reported — the agency says.
Federal CDC officials report that less than 1 percent of people infected with West Nile will develop serious illness. Among patients with severe illness, the fatality rate ranges from 3 to 15 percent, with the highest rates occurring among the elderly.
Jennings said the board expects that the proposed rule changes are likely to generate controversy, and some groups are already concerned — especially organic farmers.
Katy Green, organic transitions director with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in Unity, said the nonprofit organization, which represents some 7,000 members in Maine, is worried about “the feasibility of limiting aerial spraying.”
If an organic farmer’s fields or orchards are inadvertently hit by drifting spray, they “couldn’t sell any of those products as organic,” she said. “They’re worried about their livelihoods.”
Organic growers and farmers in York County and some other areas of southern Maine — where the incidence of West Nile- and EEE-infected mosquitoes has tended to be higher — would likely be especially vulnerable to the consequences of widespread spraying, she said.
But others characterized the board’s action as a necessary step.
“What the state is doing is being prudent to be prepared,” said Ted St. Amand, president of Atlantic Pest Solutions of Arundel, a company that handled ground spraying around two elementary schools in Lebanon last summer.
Widespread spraying involves the use of nonselective or broad-spectrum pesticides, which are designed to accomplish “a flash kill of adult mosquitoes,” St. Amand said. He said the poison will also kill other species of insects.
But targeting spray programs at times of the day when mosquitoes are active and other insects’ activities recede could help reduce negative impacts, he said.
“The state is not looking for a blank check” to spray, Amand said. “They have to weigh the pros and cons,” but all indicators are that the mosquitoes and these diseases “are going to continue to grow and move northward.”
Staff Writer North Cairn can be reached at 791-6325 or at