Most people pass without noticing the eight by eleven sheets of paper, taped to lamp posts, fences, and trashcans sporadically through the park. After all they are probably ads for guitar lessons or lost cats. Such bills are common in public spaces. However, on close inspection the signs are a warning from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for people in the six zip codes surrounding Brooklyn's Prospect Park to remain indoors from 8:15pm tonight to 6am the next day.
The trouble started back on July 7th when the department discovered mosquitoes carrying the West Nile Virus in Staten Island. The department promptly began an eradication campaign, as in previous summers, in all Burroughs with the exception of Manhattan. As in the past, the department went with a pesticide known as Anvil 10+10 to do the job.
Anvil 10+10 contains pyrethroids, which mimic hormones such as estrogen, and have been linked to breast cancer in women and infertility in men. Pyrethroids have also been associated with prostate cancer, miscarriages and premature delivery, and asthma to name just a few diseases in the compound's deadly pantheon. Also in Anvil you will find, piperonyl-butoxide, listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a “likely” carcinogen. The immediate effects of Anvil 10+10 are allergy like symptoms such as a runny nose. The chronic effects mentioned above come later.
The Department of Health is required to give at least 72 hour notice before spraying the pesticide and says it distributes press releases. However, every resident this reporter spoke to who live in the vicinity of Prospect, many of whom enter the park on a daily basis, said the day of the spray (Aug. 4), was the first time they spotted the alert. Large swaths of the park contained no warning sign whatsoever.
A Parks Department employee I spoke with the following day said she personally had posted the signs, indicating she had taped them after the 72 hour minimum had expired.
Though the postings warned residence to stay indoors over night they did not caution residents that Anvil lingers long after the initial spay. Pyrethroids have a soil half life of twelve days according to the National Pesticide Information Center.
When asked I asked the Parks Department worker if she knew where specifically the spraying had been conducted she referred me to the signs she had posted, which still clung precariously to where she had tacked them a day earlier.. When I pointed out that the map on the sign included the entire park and stretched down to Caton Avenue in the south and as far as Fifth Avenue to the North, well beyond the park's perimeters, a look of surprise broke across her face; she hadn't examined the very signs she was posting.
A majority of people in fact, were unaware of the warnings and were shocked once they were pointed out. Many could not speak or read English, the only language the sign was in, and therefore had no idea Anvil would be sprayed that evening. At 8:15, the appointed time residents were warned to remain in doors, the park was still full and thriving. Police officers directing traffic in Prospect said they were unaware of the warning. One griped, “They don't tell us anything.” When I pointed out the Department of Health's sign was only in English another officer observed candidly, “That's racist.”
Pesticides have a long, sordid history in New York City. Thousands of New Yorkers were sickened by an discriminate spaying in city parks in 1999 and 2000. That includes six employees of Clarke Environmental Mosquito Management, the Illinois based firm that manufactures Anvil. The workers became extremely ill after they were sent on the job without training or protective gear. What began as allergy sneezing quickly evolved into migraines, nose bleeds, difficulty breathing and sexual dysfunction.
In 2007 the city settled a lawsuit brought by grassroots community groups against the department of health for violating the Clean Water Act. The No Spray Coalition, one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs traded monetary compensation from the city in exchange for the Department of Health's admission that Anvil is dangerous to humans, contaminates water, kills fish and strengthens mosquitoes. Despite the admission New York continues to spray, while Clarke supplies the poison.
West Nile is not a significant threat to New Yorkers, though the disease has been cropping up in parts of the US at a rising rate. According to Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals 90% percent of those infected won't ever feel the symptoms. Center for Disease Control data puts the death total from West Nile in the United States at 30 in 2009. Meanwhile, approximately 20,000 people die each year in the US from the flu.
Many scientists have attributed the spread of West Nile, which thrives in damp, humid environs, to global warming. In a 2009 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, scientists warned climate change will “likely increase the burden of this disease in coming decades.” In warmer climates mosquitoes reach biting age faster and multiply in greater number, diffusing West Nile at a greater rate. Warmer weather also prolongs the rain season, extending the climate in which mosquitoes thrive.
Aside from the obvious irony of spraying a deadly pesticide to prevent the dissemination of a rather benign virus, the oil based production process of pesticides such as Anvil 10+10 aids the depletion of the ozone and aggravates the green house gas effect, which contributes to climate change which spreads West Nile.
The spraying of Anvil did not, after all, occur at the fated hour of 8:15, but according to the Health Department was delayed until 12:30 to accommodate a showing of the classic German Expressionist silent film Metropolis, with live orchestra accompaniment. The dystopian film is set in a future city, where the world is divided between the managers who rule society, and the workers who toil at their mercy. The film's eery score would have provided fitting accompaniment to Anvil 10+10 as it hissed out of the nozzle.