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As contaminated water concerns grow, Massachusetts towns urge the state to stop spraying pesticides in their communities

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5/31/2021 David Abel
a field with a mountain in the background: Mosquito spraying in the southeastern Massachusetts area. © Provided by The Boston Globe Mosquito spraying in the southeastern Massachusetts area.

After announcing that the town’s water supply contained elevated levels of the toxic chemicals known as PFAS, selectmen at a recent virtual meeting in Pepperell turned to another thorny subject: Should the town try to opt out of state-mandated aerial and roadside spraying of pesticides?

The issues, in significant ways, were connected.

To reduce the spread of eastern equine encephalitis and other mosquito-borne diseases, the state has sprayed millions of acres in recent years with a pesticide found to contain significant amounts of PFAS. The PFAS leached into the pesticide from its packaging.

Is your drinking water supply contaminated with toxic chemicals? Check this database

“Not only is this bad for human health and the environment, for the long-term effects it causes, but [the pesticides] can also pose an immediate danger to vulnerable populations, including children with chronic health problems,” Renee D’Argento, chair of Pepperell’s Board of Health, told selectmen.

Soon afterward, selectmen in this town along the New Hampshire border voted to make Pepperell one of at least 13 municipalities in Massachusetts to take advantage of a new law that allows communities to request the state’s permission to forgo pesticide spraying.

Over the years, residents throughout the state have complained about the potential health risks of widespread spraying of pesticides, especially from the air, and their concerns have only intensified as more communities have found elevated levels of PFAS in their drinking water.

Environmental advocates fear the broad dispersal of the pesticide, and the large amounts used over the years, may have resulted in the chemicals leaching into groundwater.

“I have yet to be convinced that blanketing the state with pesticides is a good public health strategy,” said Julia Blatt, executive director of Massachusetts Rivers Alliance. “It seems crazy to me that we’re asking water suppliers to spend millions of dollars to remove PFAS from public water supplies to make them safe, while continuing to spread pesticides, some of which we know contain PFAS.”

Last summer, a year after six people died from EEE, the state’s deadliest outbreak since the 1950s, Governor Charlie Baker signed a law that gave state regulators new powers to fight mosquito-borne diseases.

For the first time, state officials could “engage in preventive, management, and eradication methods” in any municipality — without permission from local officials. Previously, the state could only spray pesticides from the air without local authorization if the governor declared a public health emergency.

Under pressure from environmental advocates who have long raised concerns about the ecological dangers of pesticide spraying, lawmakers added a provision that allows communities to seek exemptions from spraying. But the state can reject their requests.

“Any application will be reviewed with consideration of historical arbovirus risk, the impact of the opt-out application regionally, and the implementation of an alternative mosquito management plan,” said Craig Gilvarg, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Arboviruses include mosquito-borne diseases.

Alternative management plans “must contain a detailed public outreach and education component,” he said. That includes alerting residents to the risks of mosquito-borne diseases in the summer and if such disease is detected; reminding them to use insect repellent and dump standing water around their homes; and advising those who are vulnerable, such as the young and infirm, to avoid outdoor activity between dusk and dawn.

But the state didn’t give municipalities much time to decide, notifying them in March that they had to vote on the matter and submit an alternative plan by this month. The state, facing complaints, extended the deadline by two weeks to last Friday.

“There was physically no way [some] could have scheduled the necessary votes, written the opt-out application, and voted by the deadline,” said Kyla Bennett, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in New England, an advocacy group.

Environmental activists who oppose the widespread use of pesticides, which they contend is not only harmful to people and animals but also ineffective, have been prodding municipalities to opt out.

Despite fears of EEE-carrying mosquitoes, aerial spraying poses greater danger, environmentalists say

The communities that have sought permission to forgo spraying are mainly in Western Massachusetts. Joining Pepperell are Ashby, Erving, Gill, Gloucester, Greenfield, Harvard, Montague, Orange, Pittsfield, Plainfield, Wendell, and Whately.

At least eight others were considering asking for a waiver, Bennett said, while another four voted against opting out.

Officials in Halifax, which rejected a proposal to opt out, said a resident had died several years ago of EEE, which has been most prevalent in the surrounding communities of Southeastern Massachusetts. In 2019, six of the 12 people who contracted the disease died.

“There’s a huge amount of swampland here, and we’re a hotbed for West Nile virus and EEE,“ said Charlie Seelig, town administrator of Halifax. “The board felt that the dangers from mosquitoes and the diseases that they carry were enough of a concern to be more important than any potential downside from the program.”

But environmental advocates and officials in other towns said they are more concerned about the risks of spraying than mosquito-borne diseases, which remain rare in Massachusetts but are likely to become more prevalent as a result of climate change.

They noted that the primary pesticide the state has used to spray, Anvil 10+10, was found last year to have PFAS concentrations that exceed the amount the state allows in drinking water. The so-called “forever chemicals,” which never fully degrade in the environment, have been found in other consumer products, such as non-stick pans, furniture, and food packaging. Scientists have linked the chemicals to cancer, compromised immune systems, and a range of diseases.

The state has been reviewing whether to continue using Anvil, after state and federal regulators confirmed that PFAS in the packaging leached into the pesticide. Officials said they would decide whether to use Anvil — which they found didn’t contain the toxic chemicals when it came in new packaging — or other pesticides before spraying resumes this summer.

In Montague, local officials said their decision to opt out was based on advice from their Board of Health, Conservation Commission, and concerned residents.

“Montague is not the type of community to allow unproven pesticides to pollute our drinking water and pristine wetlands,” said Walter Ramsey, the town planner.

In Gloucester, there were other concerns, especially from the lobster industry.

Patti Page, an outspoken resident who works for a local lobster business, noted that mosquitoes and lobsters are both arthropods and vulnerable to the same threats.

“What kills a mosquito kills lobsters just as effectively,” she said.

Before the new law took effect, she noted, Gloucester didn’t allow spraying and has seen no reason to change.

“This took away all local control,” she said. “This was very concerning to me.”

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