Mike Contratto is a former military man. He’s from a military family and grew up on a military base. He’s a West Point graduate, and he’ll admonish anyone who calls him an environmental activist.
He says he’s “not an activist, but he likes action,” and he’s not the kind of guy who ever wore “those tie-dyed T-shirts.” He also does not back away when he knows his facts are correct.
He’s fighting City Hall over pollinators and routine fogging for mosquitoes.
Contratto trained with a chemical weapons bomb disposal unit in the military. He’s also a licensed pesticide applicator. Contratto retired from Caterpillar Inc. where he worked as a technical expert and engineer. He understands the science of chemicals. He’s an organic gardener, Monarch butterfly enthusiast, pollinator protector and active volunteer working on restoration of natural habitats.
So he speaks with authority when he warns Chillicothe officials that the city’s decades-old practice of routine fogging for mosquito control every two weeks is not good public policy.
“I understand when they say they need to protect people versus bees,” he said. “But they can care for both –– with minimal risk to human health.”
Actually, routine spraying may be making the mosquito situation worse by breeding mosquitoes resistant to pesticides and by killing beneficial insects that feed on mosquitoes, explained Drew Toher, community resource and policy director at Beyond Pesticides, a Washington, D.C. based not for profit that studies pesticide use and viable alternatives.
“Spraying should never be done on a routine schedule. Spraying should always be based on monitoring,” Toher said.
If toxic insecticides are used routinely, they will be ineffective if a real need ever arises, he said.
Beyond Pesticides recommends monitoring, use of larvicides, if needed, such as Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) and public education. The best way to reduce mosquitoes is to encourage all residents to walk their property looking for standing water, Toher said. That could be just one or two children’s wading pools that breed mosquitoes populating an entire neighborhood.
“The pesticide industry provides a lot of false assurances without adequately describing the dangers,” Toher said.
Dale Goodner, naturalist and former supervisor with the Peoria Park District, is equally critical of routine fogging and said integrated pest management is the recommended policy. IPM calls for monitoring and applying products only if need can be documented.
“You have to take these poisons seriously. They don’t know when to stop,” he said. “What else are they killing? Follow the ‘precautionary principle.’ If you don’t know all the consequences of using something and it could come back and bite you in the butt, then don’t use it.”
He said permethrin, the active ingredient in Biomist 3+15 ULV used by Chillicothe, is “indiscriminate. It does damage we don’t even know about.”
Dr. Herman Brockman, emeritus professor of genetics at Illinois State University, said natural pyrethrin is a chysanthemum extract that biodegrads quickly, but synthetic pyrethroids like permethrin are much more toxic than the natural ones, and biodegrade much more slowly.
Pyrethrins are approved for organic production, while synthetic pyrethroids are not, Toher explained.
“But even so, all mosquito adulticides should be used as a last resort and only when there is a sustained presence of a disease vector that risks transmission to humans,” Toher said. “The pesticide industry often touts synthetic pyrethroids ‘as safe as chrysanthemum flowers,’ but that is far from the truth. As Dr. Brockman indicates, these chemicals are highly toxic, and they degrade much slower in the environment than the natural extracts of chrysanthemum.”
Dr. Brockman cited the first of the four laws of ecology described by Barry Commoner and said, “‘Everything is connected to everything else.’ You can’t do just one thing. You can’t just spray for mosquitoes.”
Brockman said mosquito fogging has ramifications that create a chain reaction in nature.
“The arrogance we can spray poisons into the environment is beyond comprehension,” he said.
Contratto said the label for Biomist warns it is highly toxic to bees exposed to the product. His wife has an organic garden at their home in Chillicothe.
“I’m sick and tired of the mentality that’s anti-science and anti-common sense,” he said. “We live in a rural community, and we’re environmentally conscious.”
His restoration work at Coal Hollow Park not only protects the land but helps people reconnect to the earth, he said.
He and his wife moved to Chillicothe in 1990, and they often saw bats and night hawks.
“Bats and night hawks have disappeared. The loss of habitat has been tremendous,” he said.
As a licensed pesticide applicator, Contratto said he uses chemicals auspiciously in his restoration work, recently for elimination of crowned vetch.
“I’m not opposed to using chemicals. But use them in a way creating the most benefit and the least harm. They say they spray (for mosquitoes) to protect people, but they’re actually damaging people. That is not a reasoned approach.
“We banned chemical weapons in warfare, yet we are doing it to ourselves.”
Neither the mayor nor director of public works in Chillicothe were available for an interview for several weeks. CW filed for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Documents show a letter is sent to residents of the city announcing dates for the mosquito fogging every two weeks from June through September.
Invoices showed costs of about $24,000 in chemicals and equipment over the past five years. That does not include the cost of personnel involved in the biweekly fogging. In addition to Biomist, the city is purchasing Mosquito One, advertised as a natural garlic-based spray.
There was no information in city documents indicating a resident, neighborhood or street in Chillicothe could request to be excluded from the routine fogging. There were no available records indicating when the fogging program started, but a number of people said it’s been about 30 years. There were no records indicating what chemicals have been used in the past, but one person said at one time the city was using malathion, a chemical that is highly toxic to bees. Both malathion and permethrin in Biomist are considered “bad actors” by Pesticide Action Network, a not-for-profit organization studying pesticides.
Most public health departments monitor for mosquitos and use larvicides only if a threat is determined.
The Midwest Pesticide Action Center said fogging is the least effective means of controlling mosquitoes. The not-for-profit environmental group said better alternatives include applying larvicides, identifying and treating the targeted source of mosquitoes and the use of fish that eat mosquito larvae.
In a written statement presented to Chillicothe officials, Contratto said, “The amount (of the chemical) used in the spraying is very small however it does stay persistent on objects such as children’s toys from a half day to two days. The method to dispense the pesticide, fogging or misting, will cause reactions in people with preexisting medical conditions such as asthma.”
Malaria, yellow fever, Zika virus and dengue fever are spread by mosquitoes but they are tropical and not contracted in central Illinois. West Nile virus has been found in central Illinois but the carrier is the Culex pipiens or house mosquito.
Contratto said this is not the same mosquito found in flood waters. The mosquito carrying West Nile prefers water with high organic content like water that pools in old tires, catch basins and poorly drained ditches.
Contratto is currently restoring 48 acres at Coal Hollow Park just outside Chillicothe and beyond the area fogged with insecticides. After walking for an hour through the wooded park and over a stream, Contratto asked “How many mosquitoes have bothered you? None!”
There is only one current case of West Nile reported in Illinois in the Chicago area. One bird found in Metamora in June tested positive for West Nile.