I grew up surrounded by the majesty of the natural world. In the mountain community of Bozeman, Montana, I skied, fished, hunted and climbed my way into young adulthood with the naïve belief that everyone could come to see the innate value in the natural world. My fascination with all things outside and the desire to protect those things eventually led me to the University of Utah, pursuing an undergraduate degree in environment and sustainability studies.
Four years later, my understanding of humans and their interaction with the environment has greatly evolved. We live in the Anthropocene. Humans dominate the natural world to the point that our actions change the fundamental systems of our planet. But we haven’t yet learned to grasp exactly how damaging our interventions into the natural world can be, to both environmental and human health.
This spring, I joined Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment as an intern. My objective was to determine each district’s rules and regulations surrounding pesticide application, types and quantities of pesticides being used, and the public disclosure process surrounding their use.
Simply accessing the basic public information surrounding the activities of the districts was difficult. Only a handful of the 19 districts in the state list the pesticides they use online, and none acknowledges their health risks. Utah touts the transparency of its government agencies, but the most basic information on these districts’ activities required weeks of phone calls and information requests.
Nonetheless, I learned the scale of pesticide use in Utah is shocking. In Davis County alone, with a population of over 350,000, the mosquito abatement district sprays by airplane nearly half a gallon of toxic pesticides for every man, woman and child in the county every year.
In Salt Lake City, enough pesticides are dispersed each year to blanket the city two and a half times. It is unquestionable that residents of Utah are being subjected to repeated exposure to toxic chemicals.
The chemicals used to kill adult mosquitos are organophosphates and pyrethroids, both are highly toxic nerve agents. There is a long list of known health hazards even from low-dose exposure to these pesticides: increased risk of cancer, heart disease, lung disease and a wide variety of neurologic disorders.
Perhaps most disturbing is that exposure to either organophosphates or pyrethroids at critical developmental windows in utero or early infancy can reduce intellect, learning ability and precipitate behavioral disorders.
Pesticide exposure is at the top of the list of environmental triggers of autism. As of 2021, Utah has the second highest rate of autism in the United States. There is overwhelming evidence that these chemicals cause widespread damage to human health. Naled, a pesticide spread in Salt Lake, Davis, and Cache counties by airplane throughout the summer, has been banned in the European Union since 2012. Officials stated it presented “an unacceptable risk” to human health.
Over time, the mosquitoes develop resistance to the pesticides, requiring higher and higher concentrations for the same effect. These pesticides have not been proven to decrease the incidence of West Nile Virus, ostensibly the reason for spraying in the first place.
Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement admits as much in their environmental impact assessment: “In many instances, the numbers of mosquitoes collected in some of the traps do not decrease after aerial ULV adulticide operations are conducted.”
Which raises the question, why are we using these pesticides?
Application of these pesticides is left entirely to each district, which relies on the chemicals extensively. Run by boards of political appointees, mosquito abatement districts are not managed by elected officials. The decision to expose all of us to these hazardous chemicals is being made by people who have no expertise or even basic understanding of their toxicity to humans, with no oversight by anyone who does.
It isn’t cheap to spread toxins from airplanes. The state is shelling out upwards of $16 million a year to poison its residents.
On the cusp of graduation, sharing what I’ve learned I hope will motivate people to push for change, and protect their health and the health of their children. But my optimism is guarded. We have moved too slowly to address other issues of public and environmental health. Whether scientific evidence is enough to convince Utahns to protect themselves and their loved ones remains to be seen.
Jack Bozarth recently graduated from the University of Utah and completed an internship with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.