Fred Grimm

Floridians prefer spewing clouds of chemicals to genetically modified bugs

White, billowing clouds in the distance gave us advanced warning. We kids ran for our bikes like fighter pilots scrambling for jets. When the “skeeter truck” moved down our street, we fell in behind, pedaling like mad to keep up with the fog of DDT spewing from the back of the truck.

In retrospect, it seems unfathomable that responsible adults abided such idiocy. But those were the cigarette-puffing, smokestack-spewing, pollution-breathing, toxic-water-drinking 1950s. Back when we endangered ourselves every which way.

Six decades later, now that we know better, it’s startling to consider that dousing communities with insecticides remains the preferred method of mosquito control. At least among the general population.

About 167,000 names have been added to an online petition opposing a promising alternative to chemical spraying — “Say No to Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Release in the Florida Keys.” Which would be more names than the Keys has population (77,000).

Keys residents have been riled up by a proposed trial by the British company Oxitec, which has received preliminary FDA approval to release three million sterile male mosquitoes in Key Haven, just north of Key West. Theoretically, the release would drastically reduce the local infestation of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, blamed for spreading dengue fever, chikungunya and, lately, Zika.

Local opposition to the release of genetically engineered mosquitoes has become so intense that the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board decided to put the issue on the Aug. 30 primary ballot and allow Key Haven’s 781 registered voters to have a say. Genetically modified bugs will probably fare as well with the voters in Key Haven as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush in the presidential primaries.

It helps the opposition that no Zika infections have been reported in the Keys. Not yet. But as of Wednesday, 44 of the state’s 112 Zika cases have been reported in Miami-Dade, with another 15 in Broward County. (So far, all of Florida’s cases have been attributed to foreign travel.)

But it’s just a matter of time. Last month, a NASA research team — considering temperature, rainfall and other factors favorable to the spread of the Aedes mosquito — put together a national Zika risk map for this summer. The big red sphere encompassing the U.S. area with the highest risk flared out from Miami and took in the upper Keys.

Just Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott traveled to Washington trying to convince Florida’s congressional delegation that a Zika crisis is looming. (President Obama has been trying, without success, to extract a $1.9 billion emergency allocation from our comatose Congress.)

Meanwhile, worries over Zika have escalated across Latin America, particularly in Brazil, as infections multiplied. The May issue of the Harvard Public Health Review called for moving the Olympics out of Brazil. “Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago.”

By the way, Brazil, with 26,000 Zika cases in Rio de Janeiro alone, has embraced the release of genetically engineered mosquitoes. Nothing like an epidemic to overcome worries about Frankenbugs.

(Editor’s note: Matthew Warren of Oxitec, via email, noted that the FDA has actually issued a preliminary "finding of no significant impact." The FDA won’t decide on a final finding until after reviewing the public comments. The comment period ends Friday.)