2002-11-16 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

By Stuart Mirsky

Mosquito Season and Rockaway

Stu Mirsky is a long-time Rockaway resident who was a Deputy Commissioner for the City's Department of Health. He has authored a book on the Vikings. Mirsky will be writing a once a month column on city problems and the agencies that address those problems.

Since the advent of the West Nile virus, first identified and addressed by New York City's Health Department, there has been an annual scramble to deal with mosquitoes, carriers of the some-time fatal virus, before they deal with us. First isolated in Northern Queens, the presence of the virus has now been confirmed more widely, first within the metropolitan area and then nationwide. Fortunately, Rockaway has not been a hotspot for the virus, possibly reflecting the kind of mosquitoes that plague us. But we sure do get mosquitoes.

Each year, since the first uncertain efforts to address the presence of the virus, the city's response has improved. Back in the summer of '99 the Health Department was still trying to figure out the vectors of the disease (they were certain groups of birds and the mosquitoes that bite them along with the local mammal population. . including us!) and how to track and control these vectors. Although not the most virulent disease known to man, it was new to our part of the world and can be fatal to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Because Rockaway is surrounded by water and contains wetlands and lots of migratory birds, we're a natural mosquito breeding ground and risk source.

When West Nile was first noted, the city's main response was massive insecticide spraying to kill adult mosquitoes and larviciding or elimination of standing water areas to wipe out breeding grounds. The spraying and larviciding response was driven by results obtained through monitoring the viral presence in dead birds and by tracking of the occurrence of the disease in humans. By the second year, the Department of Health shifted to a more targeted response as its systems for tracking the presence of the disease sharpened and it built databases and quicker feedback mechanisms. Selected spraying, in hotspot areas only, replacing the more broad blanketing of communities, and more coordinated attacks on wetland and standing water areas seemed to tamp down the presence of the disease. But this past season, we saw a resurgence in the number of human cases as well as an increased spread nationwide, seeming to call for a stronger response by the city. So what does this mean for us here in Rockaway?

Some areas of our peninsula are particularly susceptible to the little pests. In Dubos Point, where a small residential community sits adjacent to a protected wetland (and where additional homes are even now going up), the mosquito problem has been especially prevalent. Even with the absence of a viral presence in sample mosquitoes, the level of mosquito infestation is so great that residents complain they dare not spend too much time outside their houses during the season's height. Walking through the area can cause you to become the center of a cloud of hungry little bugs. Just opening a car window, if you are driving on the local roads, can be a luncheon invitation for a flying colony of arthropods and, in nearby Edgemere Park, children cannot play outdoors because of dive-bombing bugs. Things are not much better in parts of Bayswater.

The mere fact that mosquitoes have been implicated in the transfer of a sometimes-fatal disease ought to be enough to make us pay attention to them and worry about getting them under control. Of course the flip side is that Rockaway, to some extent, is still a natural area and Rockawayites value this aspect of their community. Besides, spraying may not only cause a problem to the wetlands we value, it can, down the road, turn out to be something that is harmful to people as well. (Note that the Health Department has been very cognizant of this latter risk and has invested a good deal of effort into researching and securing the safest products available for its anti-mosquito efforts.)

So what to do? Well, of course there is a more holistic approach to handling the mosquito vector problem but, as you would imagine, it's more costly and more complex to implement. Dubos Point is a prime example of this. The proximate cause of the mosquito problem there is the existence of a natural wetland. This is made more problematic because of the lack of adequate street sewers to take excess water after it rains, resulting in standing water that persists for weeks on end.

In 1999 and 2000 the Department of Health took a close look at Dubos and began to work with the Parks Department, which has operational responsibility for the wetland area, and the State Department of Environmental Conservation, which had jurisdiction over these lands. Several walk-throughs demonstrated that the Dubos Point preserve was overgrown and strewn with garbage. The thick growth concealed various natural water pools and the garbage served as water collectors providing further breeding areas for mosquitoes. A review of the bay area around the Point showed that the natural tidal flows were seriously blocked causing water to become stagnant.

To implement a more proactive approach to mosquito control in the area, the Health Department worked with Parks to map out the areas where the water was and make them accessible. Parks and the Health Department then worked jointly to ensure larviciding of these areas during the mosquito breeding season. Health also began a policy of installing so-called mosquito magnets around the perimeter of the wetland area to create a barrier between the mosquitoes and their feeding grounds. These are special mosquito traps that actually emit an attractant to draw mosquitoes (as opposed to merely capturing passing bugs). Needless to say, each "magnet," which is about the size of a small barbecue grill and requires natural gas to operate, is rather costly and needs to be protected from vandalism.

Addressing the water flow problem in the bay area was a larger matter, subject to a planned capital project which has yet to be implemented.

What have the results been? Although no formal baseline study was ever implemented, anecdotal responses from community residents suggested that the holistic approach had merit. Individuals interviewed on the street in the summer of 2001 reported that mosquitoes were reduced in the area while the magnets were in place and the community's spokespersons have sought reinstallation of the magnets, since they were first introduced, in each succeeding year.

By themselves the magnets are not a total solution for a variety of reasons. Their effectiveness is limited to areas like Dubos where a barrier line can be created by their strategic placement. And they need constant upkeep and frequent changing of baits, collection bags and gas tanks. But they point the way to a strategic approach. Combined with a comprehensive management of the area identified as the breeding ground, they offer us a way to control mosquitoes without recourse to potentially harmful spraying.

In Dubos more certainly needs to be done, including periodic clean-ups of the wetland area, to eliminate sources of stagnant water, and improved drainage in the adjacent streets. The long-awaited capital project to clear out the bay also must be done. And it would be advisable to utilize the magnets in a more systematic and scientific way, building a baseline of data to determine the relative effectiveness of the units and to guide the city in finding the best ways to use them. But it is not unreasonable for Rockawayites to ask the city to apply more creative solutions like this in order to begin to address the problem of significant mosquito infestations in areas that need to be protected. In fact, there is opportunity here for creative partnerships between local communities, such as the one at Dubos, and city agencies responsible for the larger issues. The initiative at Dubos points the way.

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