Health Care

Miami Herald sues county for records disclosing location of Zika mosquitoes

The Aedes aegypti mosquito that can transmit Zika.
The Aedes aegypti mosquito that can transmit Zika.

The Miami Herald filed suit Friday against Miami-Dade County seeking to force the county to disclose records showing the locations where mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus have been trapped.

Miami Beach residents need to know where the mosquitoes have been found so they can intelligently debate whether spraying a controversial insecticide over “the entirety of a 1.5 square mile densely populated area” is justified, the lawsuit said, asking for a quick hearing in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court.

Though the mosquito traps were set by the state agriculture department, the suit was filed against the county’s Public Works and Solid Waste Management Department, which holds — and has refused to make public — records identifying the specific location of the traps.

“Given the intense public interest in the spread of Zika, and the desire of South Floridians to have as much information as possible to make their own health decisions, we believe the locations of the traps should be released,” said Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez. “Government should be as transparent as possible on this crucial public health concern.’’

A county spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit.

As the county’s Zika toll rises on nearly a daily basis, with 93 local cases confirmed and government counterattacks including aerial spraying of the insecticide naled over South Beach, the secrecy over where the disease-bearing mosquitoes were found has been an increasing point of contention.

The agriculture department announced on Sept. 9 that it had captured Zika-positive mosquitoes in a total of four traps — out of 19 traps placed around South Beach. But it has identified only one specific location where the mosquitoes were found: the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, which had already been closed for mosquito control.

The other locations have remained secret, despite growing public protests about naled spraying and two formal Herald requests for the release of the records under Florida’s public-records law.

Gayle Love, a senior division director of the county’s public works department, denied the requests, citing an exemption in the law for “information submitted in reports of diseases of public health significance to the Department of Health.” Those reports, the law says, “shall be made public only when necessary to public health.”

The Herald’s lawsuit argues that the documents identifying the location of the traps aren’t “information submitted in reports” — and even if they are, their disclosure “is required by public health” so that residents living near the location of the traps can take steps to defend themselves against the mosquitoes.

“The precautions, decisions and risks facing someone living or working next door to these specific locations are different than those facing someone who lives miles away — especially since this species of mosquito typically travels no more than 1,000 feet during its life cycle,” the suit said.

Knowing exactly where the mosquitoes have been found is also important to the debate over the use of naled, the lawsuit contends, calling it “a chemical that some studies — and one [county] commissioner — say is a dangerous neurotoxin.”

Naled has been banned in Europe and Puerto Rico. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that in small doses, the insecticide can control mosquitoes “without posing risks to people” other than some short-term skin, eye or nose irritation for those sensitive to chemicals.

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