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Pittsfield city council narrowly defeats effort to return to mosquito spraying after opting out in 2021

Pittsfield police officers outside city hall during the April 12th, 2022 city council meeting.
Josh Landes
Pittsfield police officers outside city hall during the April 12th, 2022 city council meeting.

In a tight vote, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council decided against returning to a controversial mosquito spraying program it opted out of in 2021 at its meeting Tuesday night.

Two agenda items addressed mosquito spraying at the meeting: Ward 4 councilor James Conant, citing constituent outcry, asked the body to rescind the vote on opting out in a petition. In a separate request, Director of Public Health Andy Cambi asked the body to not only rescind the vote but to revisit the city’s involvement with the organization that performs the spraying — the Berkshire Mosquito Control Project. Cambi says after three mosquitos tested positive for West Nile Virus this summer, it’s in the interest of public health to return to spraying under a new comprehensive plan.

“I believe this should fall under the authority of the board of health, because again, this is something that we have worked with for many years," he told the council. "And again, it's not a random fog machine that's going out and applicating all these pesticides as needed. I understand the concern that you have, and as far as what I can say to that is that for a vote to say no spraying, it doesn't prevent a private company to not spray. Essentially, a neighbor of your sister’s could have had spraying done at their location. So again, we don't have control measures over that.”

Cambi’s presentation was met with skepticism and outright condemnation from councilmembers.

“Throwing chemicals up into the air to try to kill a small percentage of adult mosquitoes is not doing anybody favors besides killing pollinators. And even if you kill a handful of pollinators, we are not in this place in the world where we can be letting any pollinators die," said at-large councilor Earl Persip. “If we really want to spend our money and talk about things we should be addressing, we have a way bigger tick problem and tick disease than mosquitoes. I bet you if you get the numbers of how many people go to the hospital with tick borne illnesses versus mosquito borne illnesses, it would really jump out at you.”

“I have talked to a considerable number of people who have had experience with this, predominantly in agriculture. I've also talked to health professionals about it. And I've done my own research. And there's nothing that has been said tonight that makes me feel comfortable making this drastic change," said Ward 6 councilor Dina Lampiasi. “We're talking about residents not wanting biohazardous chemicals in the air or on the plants that their children are touching. Why would we do that? Why would we make that decision when you're not giving us any real information? You haven't given us a real timeline. Three days is not enough for a resident to get the information, and then – I will finish – to get their busy schedule together, gather the information they need and contact whatever number or health department person you're asking them to contact to say, take me off the list. That's a lot to ask.”

While questioning Berkshire Mosquito Control Project Superintendent Christopher Horton, at-large councilor Pete White noted that Pittsfield isn’t alone in rejecting the spraying.

“Over 20 communities in Berkshire County have decided that the Berkshire Mosquito Control Project is not worth the cost on their cherry sheet," said the councilor. "That's another concern to me, that so many of our neighbors who are more rural, and probably could have more mosquitoes based on what their geography is, have chosen not to be a part of this program.”

White drew attention to the fact that the chairman of the project’s board has worked for Clarke – a company that sells mosquito control chemicals – as a salesperson for almost 30 years.

“I've always had concerns with Wally Terrill being the chairman of your board when his job was to sell the product you were trying to get us to use,” he said.

Horton pushed back.

“Mr. Terrill was approved for that position, not by me, by the state reclamation board, which is the state authority for mosquito control," he said. "They chose Mr. Terrill because of his expertise in the field and his vicinity to this project.”

Horton expressed frustration with the council’s reception of the presentation.

“This plan is the culmination of over 10 years work, and it's mainstream public health," he told the council. "The products are our top products in the nation, approved federally, at the state level, and locally by the board of health for use for this purpose, for a public health purpose. They've been determined to be not a risk to the population by all these entities.”

The National Wildlife Federation – the United States’ largest private conservation nonprofit – has condemned the practice of mosquito spraying, noting that the chemicals used have been proven to also kill insects like bees and butterflies. The following is a quote from the NWF’s website:

“Marketing efforts and corporate talking points correctly state that these pesticides are regulated and approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency, but that doesn’t mean they are without any negative environmental consequences.”

A 2019 study by researchers at Michigan State University sums up its findings simply:

“Fogging or spraying for mosquitoes or biting flies around the yard and garden with an insecticide can be very harmful to pollinators.”

In the climactic roll call, “no” votes from councilors Karen Kalinowsky, Dina Lampiasi, Pete White, Earl Persip, Anthony Maffuccio, and Charles Kronick sunk any hope of rescinding the spraying opt out.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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