Personal mosquito spraying is a new market on Outer Banks, but is it safe?
By Catherine Kozak
Coastal Review Online
been a year since historic tides on the Outer Banks from Hurricane
Irene hatched equally historic numbers of mosquitoes, prompting
comparisons to locust plagues and bloodsucking vampires.
Two aerial spraying sweeps by Dare County mosquito control killed off
most of the insects, but apparently the extreme infestation inspired a
new boutique market.
No less than six private mosquito pest contractors have started doing
business in Dare County since the Aug. 27 storm, providing personal
mosquito control in homeowners’ backyards and at private events.
But with the proliferation of lawn fertilizers and herbicides and the
pesticides sprayed regularly by the county during mosquito season, it’s
not known what the impact of more chemicals could be to water quality,
aquatic life and beneficial insects like bees and dragon flies.
The trend for personal mosquito eradication has been growing in the
Southeast, especially in upscale neighborhoods in cities like Raleigh
and Virginia Beach, but it’s the first time the business model has
found its way to the swampy barrier islands.
“I’ve heard good and I’ve heard bad,” Carl Walker, Dare County’s Vector
Control supervisor, said about the private service. “As far as I’m
concerned, more power to them, because every one they spray, it’s less
that I have to deal with.”
Lee Tugwell, an owner of OBX Mosquito Squad in Manteo, said
he was on his way back from Haiti last Thanksgiving week when he
noticed an advertisement in an airline magazine that called the private
mosquito control business one of the fastest growing franchises in the
country. Having just left an island where malaria is a health concern,
while heading home to an island that had recently been subjected to
epic swarms of mosquitoes, he said he thought the franchise would
be a good fit for his sons and his business partner, John Robbins.
“We offer a personalized service,” he said. “It’s more than just
spraying chemicals. Our job is to protect you and your family from the
As required by law, the business is certified and licensed with
the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, and
applicators must be trained. He said they use a proprietary formula of
chemicals that have been approved by U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency. The chemicals kill quickly and have a time-released residual
with a surfactant, Tugwell said, but he declined to be specific.
“Everybody is using variations of the same stuff,” he said. “What
we use is safe and effective in the manner we have to use it by law.”
Homeowners are asked to keep their pets and children inside for about
45 minutes to allow the liquid, which is misted from a backpack
sprayer. The service also includes inspecting and removing any breeding
grounds for mosquitoes, like old buckets and tires. Even a bottle cap
with water can breed hundreds of the insects.
In addition, the company offers 100 percent natural treatments made
from garlic oil extract and rosemary and peppermint oils, Tugwell said,
but they’re more repellents than insect killers.
Tugwell, a former Manteo mayor who also owns a construction business,
said that when Mosquito Squad put up its shingle in April, he believed
it was the first of its kind on the Outer Banks. But it didn’t
take long before there was competition.
Dave Gary, owner of OBX Mosquito Man, started his Kill Devil
Hills-based business around the same time. A former telecommunications
specialist in Washington, Gary said that a mosquito bite in January
while golfing in Nags Head led him to his unlikely career path. An
authorized dealer of Mosquito Nix, a misting system similar to
automatic watering systems at properties, Gary said he still mostly
does backpack spraying, which kills on contact and lasts for about 21
days. He said he is careful to avoid dosing beneficial insects
and by law must stay a certain distance from water.
The state monitors pesticide applicators, Gary said, but concedes that
no one is “looking over my shoulder” to monitor whether it’s done
properly. But there’s little incentive to ignore the rules, he said.
“Hopefully, everyone is doing the right thing,” he said. “There is not
that great of an advantage for me to break the law. It doesn’t do any
good to spray the water.”
Patrick Jones, deputy director of pesticide programs at the state
Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, said that there are
12 agency inspectors statewide who will investigate complaints about
pesticide use. So far, there has been one complaint in 2012, and two in
Of the nine active public health commercial licenses in Dare County, he
said, five were issued this year. Licenses must be renewed every year,
and certification, which involves training, every five years.
Most mosquito pesticides used today are a class of pyrethroids, which
are synthetic versions of pyrethrins, insecticides that are derived
from the extract of chrysanthemum flowers. In the human-made chemical,
a substance is added to the pyrethrin to make it more effective and to
According to the National Pesticides Telecommunications
Network, pyrethrins are one of the least poisonous insecticides to
mammals, but are extremely toxic to fish, including shrimp.
Although the flower component makes pyrethroids sound benign, there are
serious environmental and health issues associated with them, said Fawn
Pattison, executive director of nonprofit Toxic Free North
“Any claims that it’s natural or naturally derived are totally bogus,”
she said. “As far as health risks, it’s not just the active ingredients
to worry about.”
Whatever inert chemicals are added to make the insecticide last longer
on the surface of leaves, for instance, can potentially be toxic, she
said, especially when combined with other chemicals. But there
have been few studies on synergistic effects of pyrethroids on human
health and the environment. Some data indicate that the pesticide
acts as an endocrine disrupter, and at least one study has detected the
chemical in runoff going into water bodies.
“This sort of luxury backyard spraying --- it’s done with very little
information about what they’re using and what the risks are,” she said.
“There really has not been efficacy testing. It’s a lot of chemical use
and it really doesn’t make much sense.”
Numerous studies over the years have called into question the
effectiveness of spraying to kill adult mosquitoes. The Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, in a
2001 report noted that ground and aerial spraying is usually
the least effective method to control mosquitoes.
Since adult mosquitoes only live for about two weeks at the most —
whether they're sprayed or not — the CDC said the most effective way to
limit mosquitoes is to keep them from breeding. And that means emptying
out pools of water where they lay their eggs.
Spraying may do harm to dragon flies and other insects that prey on
mosquitoes. Because they’re higher up the food chain, these predators
take in higher levels of pesticide. A study done in New York State
found that mosquito populations increased 15 times after 11 years of
Mosquitoes carry disease, such as West Nile virus, which has recently
been found in North Carolina, and encephalitis. For that reason,
state regulators say the risk of pesticide use has to be countered by
the public health benefit of mosquito control.
“When you’re talking about pesticides, you can’t really talk about
‘safe,’” said John Allran, environmental toxicologist with the state
Agriculture Department. “You can talk about a relative degree of
toxicity. Any pesticide, by the nature of what it is, it’s intended to
But that’s why there are strict guidelines and regulations on the way
the chemicals are used, he said, and each product must be labeled with
restrictions and the necessary information on its safe
application. Information on the products that are used also must
be provided to the customer.
“The label is written in such a way to prevent any adverse effects to
human health or the environment,” Allran said. “If there are any
reports of misuse, it has to be inspected.”
Mosquito control is effective only when it’s done in an “organized”
effort and managed properly, said Mike Waldvogel, N.C. State University
Extension associate professor. And ultimately, he said, it should
be weighted toward the greater good.
Private contract spraying can temporarily address the nuisance factor,
he said, but it does nothing to address the cause of the problem. It
might make sense for a special event, but it’s questionable how
effective it will be against vicious salt marsh mosquitoes that can fly
“Mosquitoes don’t respect property lines,” he said. “They see you as their lunch.”
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.)