On the local news this morning I saw a report about the increasing incidence of mosquitoes found to be carrying the EEE virus in Massachusetts. EEE (Eastern equine encephalitis) is a virus that infects the body first and may infect the brain. It has many symptoms and is fatal to approximately one third of people who have the infection progress to the brain. Those that recover could have permanent neurological damage. Scary stuff. Read more about it on the CDC website. Not all mosquitoes carry the virus, but since it’s hard for anyone but an entomologist to distinguish between mosquitoes, you should try to avoid all of them.
Avoiding mosquitoes is getting harder. This is thanks to, you guessed it, climate change. Tropical and subtropical mosquitoes are expanding their ranges north and south as conditions improve for them in temperate areas. Here in New England for example, our summers are getting longer (not astrologically of course, but the warm period is expanded) and our winters are erratic, temperature-wise. We have also been getting more intense precipitation and that trend will likely continue into the future (IPCC 5th Assessment, National Climate Assessment). Longer summers means that mosquito populations can reproduce more often, there is greater hatching success, and higher biting rates (Scientific American). Populations can migrate over those extra generations to new areas. Data shows that the Asian tiger mosquito, known to carry over 30 viruses including EEE, yellow fever, dengue fever, and Zika, are expanding into the Northeast. This tropical mosquito is likely to make it all the way up into Maine by the last quarter of the century.
So, what to do? We can’t stop them from coming. That ship has sailed thanks to our fossil-fueled selfish behavior and refusal to change. Here are some things you have probably heard a million times: avoid being outside during mosquito-laden hours such as those between dusk and dawn, wear long-sleeves and pants (very comfortable in the summer), and make sure there is no standing water for eggs to be laid in. Often the response of local governments is to spray pesticides and encourage the personal use of bug spray products that contain deet. While the EPA deems deet safe to use, I am wary of anything that comes with all these warnings:
Let’s talk about pesticides for a bit. Many pesticides kill helpful insects such as pollinators and mosquito predators. In terms of human health, many pesticides are endocrine disrupters. They cause problems for reproductive systems. Pesticides also tend to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in food chains, particularly aquatic food chains. This could lead to reduced predator populations and increased exposure to pesticides by humans who eat fish. For more on this, see my previous post about microplastics (7/2/19). So needless to say, I’m not a fan of blanket-spraying of pesticides, which is what many towns do when something like West Nile or EEE is detected in local mosquitoes.
Chemical-free alternatives to keeping your environs mosquito-free include putting up bat houses in your yard (if they are still around where you live, bats have some problems of their own...too much of a digression for this post) and saturating your outdoor seating areas with citronella candles and plants that repel mosquitoes like. Plus there are lots of “natural” alternative bug sprays. I’ve tried a lot of the “natural” sprays and lotions and I like Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent the best. It works well and smells good.
But of course we have to circle back to the Big Picture. We have to deal with more and more mosquitoes and other insect disease vectors because of global warming. Healthcare costs are going to increase, more pesticides will be put into the environment, we might even see the reemergence of malaria in this country. It’s time for drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For that we need to have a sea change in the political leadership of our country and a sea change in the behavior of individuals. On the politics front, of course we need an administration in the White House next time around that cares about the environment and the future of humanity, that goes without saying, but there are also a lot of old-guard politicians across both parties in the House and Senate that are beholden to fossil fuel companies and other big industries that lobby against climate change action. Those legislators need to be replaced with a new generation of future-thinking ones. People who care more about the future of humanity and the rest of the natural world and less about enriching themselves with money and power. (Side note: the current White House gang has managed to do a lot of damage to the environment on the DL. Fortunately Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law is tracking these setbacks. Click here for some depressing shit.)
On the individual level, you all know what you need to do. (If not, see my previous posts for suggestions!) Spread the word. We need more people talking about making change and also showing change through their actions. Change catches on. Think about how many places carry vegan foods now. When I ask if something is vegan in a restaurant now, people know what that means. That was not the case even a decade or less ago. When I was in high school, I was the only vegetarian, let alone vegan, and I got made fun of a few times by some ignorant peers. Now, typically a handful of my students are vegan and a dozen or so, at least, are vegetarian every year, and many more talk about eating fewer animal products for the sake of the environment; keep in mind I only see a small fraction of the school’s population. Change happens. Not nearly fast enough so far, but any progress is still progress, so I have to keep a bit of optimism alive.