Health Officials Seek Answers In Mosquito Trap Vandalism

By Ben Hubbard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 2, 2008

The odd-looking, multicolored contraptions the Fairfax County Health Department sets each summer to lure mosquitoes have recently attracted other nuisances: vandals and thieves.

Since the mosquito-monitoring program began in May, the county has found dozens of damaged traps, with water tubs tipped, ammonia-laden lures ripped off, ropes cut and batteries smashed or stolen. One trap appeared to have been blown up with a cherry bomb.

"There have been other instances where people open the holding container to liberate the mosquitoes," Mike Andrews, a Health Department spokesman, said yesterday. "It's like the 'Free Willy' movie, you know -- liberate the mosquitoes."

He added: "It's one of these things where you're trying to do something for the public good, and you have it interrupted by vandalism. It doesn't make a lot of sense."

The county places about 200 traps at 70 locations to monitor mosquito populations and test for viruses, said Jorge Arias, environmental health supervisor. Traps are set Mondays and Wednesdays and retrieved 24 hours later. Trapped mosquitoes are sorted by sex, and some are sent to Richmond for testing. County biologists use the data to address mosquito-related issues and monitor the presence of the West Nile virus.

All of which is hard to do when the traps aren't trapping.

Arias said about 20 trapping sites, each with two or three traps, have been disturbed at least once. Traps have been tampered with 40 to 60 times, he estimated.

Arias, who has run the program since 2003, attributes the rise in vandalism this year to a switch in monitoring procedures. In years past, traps were left in place overnight instead of 24 hours.

Three traps in Pine Spring Park were particularly hard hit, said Hina Bhalala, an environmental health specialist who oversees the monitors.

The park hosts three traps, each disturbed in its own way. One trap consists of a light bulb with a dry-ice cooler and a cup that sucks in unsuspecting mosquitoes. A second utilizes a toolbox and a tub of stinky, fermented water that entices females to lay their eggs, then sucks them into a pod.

Monitors regularly found both of these traps opened, tipped over or otherwise disturbed, Bhalala said.

Two weeks ago, the rope holding up a third trap, which has five feet of fabric and a lure inside that smells like human skin, was burned.

On Tuesday, a monitor found all three traps wrecked. That attack coincided with another at Crooked Creek Park.

"This one was completely terrorized. Everything was everywhere," Bhalala said.

The traps cost from $200 to $500, and a missing battery can cost more than $150. Dispatching a fix-it crew also wastes time and gas.

"The traps are expensive, the data is irreplaceable and I just got super-frustrated and said we have to do something about this," Arias said.

He called police to get the word out.

Lucy Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the county police department, said that police have yet to catch any trap vandals but that commanders in the hardest-hit areas have been notified.

"While this may not seem like a serious crime when you see all the crimes that there are," she said, "you certainly want to prevent these things from being tampered with."

Penalties for the destruction of such property, police said, could include a fine of up to $2,500 and up to 12 months in jail.

All remain baffled about the vandals' motives.

"We have no idea of who or why," Bhalala said. "People are curious, or bored."

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