Suffolk Closeup: Spreading toxins into our water


“We need to look with an overall perspective of how toxic chemicals affect everything — not just one nuisance,” Suffolk Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mt. Sinai) said.

Ms. Anker has been a minority voice on the Suffolk County Legislature regarding an especially toxic chemical called methoprene that the Suffolk Division of Vector Control has been using widely and enthusiastically to kill mosquitoes. States, including neighboring Connecticut, and municipalities all over the United States have banned the use of methoprene.

“I’ve had enough of these chemicals which we think are doing the job but are more detrimental than helpful,” Ms. Anker said.

She will now be getting support in her fight against methoprene from Shelter Island’s new representative in the Legislature, Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac).

Last year, the Legislature — over the eloquent objections of Ms. Anker — voted again to allow the Division of Vector Control of the county’s Department of Public Works to spray with methoprene. Thus in 2016 the chemical, which kills “non-target” insects and other life besides mosquitoes, will again be sprayed in Suffolk.

“Suffolk County in the 1960s led the way nationally in banning the use of DDT,” said Kevin McAllister, founder and president East End-based Defend H20, who spoke at length before the Legislature prior to its vote. “Relative to methoprene now, Suffolk County has really lost its way.”

Ms. Anker echoed that, adding, “What happens in government is when something has been done over and over for many years, it’s hard to change the process. We need to change this process. There are alternatives. I think it’s going to take more advocating.”

Suffolk indeed had a major role in the banning of DDT. The publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s landmark book “Silent Spring” was key nationally, but also important was a challenge to DDT in Suffolk the same year. A lawsuit, handled by Patchogue attorney Victor Yannacone, Jr., was brought against the Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission, which was widely spraying DDT.

Among other impacts, the DDT was causing the egg shells of the area’s signature bird, the osprey, to become paper-thin and break. A committee formed in the fight against DDT here became the national environmental group, the Environmental Defense Fund,

DDT is gone, the majestic osprey has been able to return in large numbers, but the chemical industry has been busy pushing other pesticides that are toxic to marine, bird and other animal life. The Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission is gone, too, but succeeding it is the Division of Vector Control, which has been as big a booster of pesticides as the old commission.

In 2007, four members of Suffolk’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the environmental watchdog in county government, resigned. Their protest came on the heels of a majority vote in the Legislature to approve a mosquito control program developed by the Division of Vector Control deploying extensive applications of methoprene.

“We did our research and homework,” Dr. John Potente, one of the four, told the Legislature in 2007. The CEQ, he testified, found “damning evidence.” But a legislative majority of 13 voted to ignore the CEQ and again let Vector Control have its way.

Casting a no vote was Edward Romaine — currently Brookhaven Town supervisor — who commented at the time that the Suffolk Legislature and one county administration after another had allowed Vector Control to get its way. “You cannot turn a blind eye and let the ‘experts’ do what they want,” he said. “These chemicals may be causing more damage than the threat of mosquito-borne disease.”

At the start of 2016, the Island’s new legislator, Ms. Fleming, said, “There is considerable concern in our local fishing industry that non-target crustaceans such as horseshoe crabs, blue crabs, spider crabs, Jonah crabs, lobster and grass shrimp may be adversely affected by methoprene. And the National Pesticide Information Center reports that methoprene is moderately toxic to some fish, and highly toxic to others and may accumulate in fish tissues.

While we obviously must continue to take seriously the importance of combatting insect-borne illnesses, we must also follow the age-old motto of the medical profession: First, do no harm.

“Recent studies,” Ms. Fleming added, “have shown that alternatives may exist to methoprene that specifically target mosquitoes and black flies, but do little harm to non-target species.”

The legislative majority, the county administration and the methoprene-devoted Division of Vector Control must listen to Legislators Anker and Fleming.