WASHINGTON ― In an effort to combat the spreading Zika virus, the federal government came close to spraying a pesticide across Puerto Rico that is highly toxic and presents the most danger to pregnant women.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention went so far as to ship the insecticide called Naled, which belongs to the organophosphate family, to Puerto Rico without notifying the commonwealth. Documented cases of the virus increase weekly; the island now has 5,582 Zika cases, and 662 women pregnant women are infected, according to the Puerto Rican Health Department. In May, the island reported the first microcephaly case to be acquired in the U.S.
Despite the growing concerns over Zika ― and Congress leaving for the summer without funding the nation’s response ― Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla decided on Friday against using Naled. Padilla confronted the CDC earlier in the week, questioning why he was not alerted to the shipment, and sent a team to ensure the pesticide was secure once he discovered where it was being stored on the island.
It was a hard decision for the governor, but opposition to the use of the pesticide was widespread in the commonwealth, and the incident reminded many residents of when the federal government used Puerto Ricans as unwitting participants in contraceptive testing in the 1950s, and when in 1992 the U.S. Navy dropped napalm on part of the island.
With Zika spreading rapidly in Puerto Rico, the CDC and EPA backed the use of Naled to kill mosquitoes carrying the virus, warning that it’s only a matter of time before the commonwealth sees more babies born with birth defects.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, warned that Naled is a neurotoxin and “among the class of the most toxic pesticides.”
Those most at risk to its effects are pregnant women, Sass said, meaning Naled would damage the neurological development of fetuses. Sass added that recent studies have shown spraying pesticides in the same chemical class as Naled, even at “legally allowed exposure” levels, is “definitely not safe during early brain development.”
“The bottom line is that drenching our homes and communities with harmful pesticides will not address Zika,” Sass said.
Using Naled too freely, Sass said, would also build up resistance, which would be detrimental in the long run in the fight against the virus.
Currently, Puerto Rico is using a multi-pronged approach, including traps to capture and kill adult female mosquitoes. The island is also weighing the introduction of genetically modified male sterile mosquitoes to curb the population.
After Padilla announced he would not give the OK to use Naled, opting for the organic larvicide Bti instead, the CDC said it would respect his decision.
“CDC respects the decision of the Governor of Puerto Rico to not pursue aerial spraying with the insecticide Naled,” the agency said in a statement. “We regret that the shipment of Naled arrived in Puerto Rico without appropriate levels of awareness. We moved too quickly in our urgency to do all that we could to be responsive and prepared in the event officials in Puerto Rico decided to use Naled.”
The CDC added that under no circumstances would it have started aerial spraying of the pesticide without authorization from the Puerto Rican government, and it will continue to support the commonwealth with “comprehensive vector control.”