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Posted at 12:28 PM ET, 08/18/2012

Dallas is divided over how to fight West Nile

DALLAS — This city is Ground Zero in the battle against West Nile, the mosquito-borne virus that’s killed 10 people and sickened more than 200 others in Dallas County, so far, this summer.

Both the city and county have declared a state of emergency. Small airplanes this week sprayed a mist of pesticide across much of the county for the first time in more than 45 years.

Interestingly, it’s the use of aerial pesticide that has sparked the most vocal concern from residents, even as the disease continues to take a toll.

Residents throughout Dallas and surrounding suburbs have mixed feelings about the use of airplanes to distribute pesticide over large swaths of land. Elected officials in each area have had to make politically tough calls about whether their jurisdiction will participate.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, the county’s top administrator, told a reporter it was the “’toughest decision” he’s ever had to make in office.

“I prayed about it,’’ said Jenkins, “and I decided to go with the science.’’

The issue is of such concern that the North Texas Poison Center was besieged with questions this week, clocking 300 callers on Thursday alone, the Dallas Morning News reported, which is almost double the daily volume.

One local TV news station launched a West Nile blog with minute-by-minute updates about weather conditions, spraying schedules, maps and the latest number of people sickened by the virus. (Text SPRAY to 48411 for updates.)

Two airplanes began spraying parts of Dallas County Thursday night, with no adverse consequences reported. But rain — which is also something of a summer rarity around here — prevented the planes from completing the job and reaching all targeted areas.

Four planes are scheduled to resume spraying Friday night.

Meanwhile, health officials and elected leaders cast the decision to use aerial spraying in the starkest possible terms.

“I cannot have any more deaths on my conscience because we failed to take action,’’ Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings told reporters.

In nearby Fort Worth, no aerial spraying has been planned, although the number of reported cases of West Nile jumped 20 percent between Monday and Thursday, from 159 cases to 191, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Two deaths have been reported there, as well as one in Denton County to the north.

Spraying is done from trucks in most of those areas, as it has been in Dallas in past years. Trucks spraying pesticides have not provoked the public backlash that aerial spraying prompted this year.

Although hard to measure, opposition to aerial spraying seemed to come from across the political spectrum. Some people were skeptical about the Environmental Protection Agency’s assurances that the pesticide does not pose a significant threat to humans or wildlife. Others seem wary of the government playing a large role in a health crisis.

Jim Schutze, a popular columnist at the alt-weekly Dallas Observer, has been a skeptic from the start.

“Instead of taking any kind of measured responsible approach, this entire spraying exercise in Dallas reeks of public panic and political exploitation,’’ he wrote. “This whole thing is an exercise in weak leadership caving in to a media-induced panic and a lot of political pressure from affluent neighborhoods where people water their lawns too much.’’

Lori Stahl covers politics and culture in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @LoriStahl.

By  |  12:28 PM ET, 08/18/2012

Tags:  West Nile, virus, Dallas, pesticide

 
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