Mosquito Control May Scratch Itch for Local Environmental Angles

August 21, 2019
The fight against mosquitoes is an important part of U.S. public health and environmental history. Above, Lt. Col. Karl Haagsma, an entomologist with the 910th Airlift Wing, checks the wind before a C-130 Hercules flies an aerial spray mission to limit the mosquito population near Joint Base Charleston, S.C., on May 5, 2016.   Photo: U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Brian Ferguson. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Mosquito Control May Scratch Itch for Local Environmental Angles

By Joseph A. Davis

Summer days outdoors mean many people slapping at mosquitoes. That’s likely an audience that will care about mosquito control — and perhaps its environmental implications. 

And mosquito control is also a good way to focus on your environmental journalism locally and regionally, since conditions vary so much by place and time.


Why it matters

First of all, mosquitoes are a pesky nuisance. They make you itch, and destroy your peace and serenity. When they are bad, they make it almost impossible to go outside to live, work or enjoy nature.

But mosquitoes are also a potential source of disease in many places. Malaria is the classic example. It is more prevalent in other parts of the world than in the United States — partly because we have a competent health care system and mosquito control, but also partly because of our luck with climate … so far.

As parts of the United States warm, we can be expected to see higher incidence of mosquito-borne diseases like chikungunya, dengue, Zika, and West Nile. You do not want to get these diseases.


The backstory

The fight against, and partial conquest of, mosquitoes is an important part of U.S. public health history. And environmental history, too.

The discovery, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that mosquitoes were a key vector of malaria was one of the foundation stones of public health and tropical medicine. 

Mosquito-borne disease, for instance, was a major obstacle to building the Panama Canal, and the understanding that mosquitoes were a yellow fever vector and development of mosquito control methods were the critical advances that made it possible for the United States under Teddy Roosevelt to completing it.

Early mosquito control methods were mechanical — things like screens, nets and draining larvae-breeding pools. Later, with the rise of synthetic chemical insecticides like DDT during the 1940s, there seemed to be a promise that mosquitoes and the diseases they transmitted could be vanquished. 

But the best efforts of chemical, mechanical and public-health approaches to mosquito control have yet to conquer malaria (subscription required).


In many parts of the country, mosquito control districts 

are a strong and functional layer of government. 

Their practices vary considerably, and they are

worthy of public scrutiny and journalistic oversight.


Much of the progress that has been made against mosquitoes in the United States has involved government and business. 

In many parts of the country, mosquito control districts are a strong and functional layer of government. Their practices vary considerably, and they are worthy of public scrutiny and journalistic oversight. 

In some cases, the districts are departments within municipal government. In some cases, mosquito control agencies are a subunit of municipal government, and may be overseen by the state. We know of no complete central list available to the public. 

Another actor on this stage is the commercial insect-control company. Increasingly, such firms are geared to the residential market, although they treat other spaces also. Typically, they spray people’s yards for a regular fee and claim that they can reduce mosquito populations around the yard. 

In some cases, insect-control companies’ efforts work. What they spray matters a lot. Often they use insecticides in the pyrethroid family. This family is comparatively less toxic to humans and breaks down fairly quickly in the environment. It does, however, affect many non-target species in the areas where it is sprayed — for example, bees or the goldfish in aquatic gardens.   

Householders can also reduce mosquitoes around the yard by non-chemical means like cleaning gutters, draining pools and biological larvicide “dunks” (so-called bT pellets).


Story ideas

  • What effect do particular local and seasonal conditions near you have on mosquito populations and disease transmission? What about heat? Water bodies? Vegetation? Consider particular mosquito species too.
  • Find out if you have a local mosquito control district and talk to them about its work. Does it just spray? And if so, what does it spray? Does it educate householders and land managers about non-chemical controls?
  • What are the big commercial mosquito control companies in your area? You can often find them just by driving around and seeing yard signs. What do they spray? How hard is it to get this information (specific chemical names) from them? What do they tell customers?
  • What are neighborhood associations and other local groups thinking and doing about mosquitoes? Do they care? Do they have accurate information? Are they trying to take action? Is the action well-advised and effective?
  • What is the agency that oversees mosquito control in your state? Talk to it.
  • Are any agencies near you trying any of the new, high-tech control methods  — like gene-drive mosquitoes or Microsoft’s mosquito traps (may require subscription)?


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 30. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: