BRISTOL — Some Elkhart County residents are worried about the safety of insects and animals after the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners decided to spray two areas to kill mosquitoes that may be carrying a dangerous disease.
"Every time we've ever tried to do stuff like this in the past, we've caused major trouble when we mess with the ecosystem," said Cynthia Jantz of Elkhart.
Jantz was at Bonneyville Mill County County Park on Tuesday with her sister Jenny Sager, releasing butterflies in memory of their late sister.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the pesticide Dibrom, which is scheduled to be sprayed over parts of the county this week, is toxic to bees, butterflies and wildlife. Unfortunately for the butterflies released by Jantz and Sager, Bonneyville Mill is inside one of the areas that will be sprayed on Wednesday or Thursday, depending on weather.
"Poor little butterflies that just got released," Sager said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) is not frequently transmitted from mosquitoes to humans, largely because the primary transmission cycle takes place in and around swampy areas, such as that around Bonneyville Mill.
So far this year, eight horses have tested positive for EEE, along with one mosquito sample pool in Elkhart County.
Elkhart County officials announced Tuesday that a public health emergency has been declared in the wake of the positive testing for mosquitoes with EEE and West Nile virus.
Nine people are reported to have died from the EEE virus in the United States this year. The CDC reports that of the 72 people who became infected with the virus from 2009 through 2018, 30 died.
Human cases of EEE have been confirmed in Michigan and several deaths have occurred.
Though the disease has a high fatality rate, the likelihood of a human becoming infected has Jantz thinking that the response from the county commissioners is out of proportion.
"You're more likely to get struck by lightning," she said.
Lightning hit an average of 270 people per year from 2009 through 2018, killing an average of 27 per year, according to the National Weather Service.
The pesticide will be sprayed at dusk, when mosquitoes are active and other insects, like bees, are generally not. The EPA recommends spraying in that manner in order for the pesticide to have the biggest possible impact on mosquitoes while hurting other insects as little as possible.
Jantz, Sager and others have complained that adding more pesticides to the environment will worsen a decline in the population of honey bees. The Honey Bee Coalition estimates honey bees support $22 billion worth of production in agriculture each year.
"It is bad if they do kill all the other honey bees and everything," Sager said. "I mean, we're having a hard time with the honey bees right now."
County officials are encouraging beekeepers to protect their hives on Wednesday. As Dibrom is also toxic to fish, people who own ponds are also encouraged to take protective measures.
Sager said it is difficult to find the right balance when human lives are at stake, but you also do not want to negatively impact nature.
"I think it's a little overreacting maybe," she said. "But you don't want anybody to pass away from it either."
In the emergency declaration, county officials said spraying is an appropriate public safety response to the public health threats from EEE.
Their declaration calls EEE a serious and deadly disease, which warrants emergency action.
"Based upon the potential for EEE infection, it is imperative that Elkhart County residents be vigilant to protect themselves from mosquitoes," according to the county's declaration.
Maps released by the county show two target areas — one in the far northwest corner of the county and a larger area between Bristol and Middlebury.
Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese said Tuesday that the city's drinking supply would remain safe during the aerial spraying.
Karla Kreczmer, manager of Environmental Health Services for the Elkhart County Health Department, said the county will continue to monitor mosquito populations at least until the first hard freeze, which typically comes the second week in October.
LaGrange County Board of Commissioners also authorized spraying for mosquitoes, but plans have not been finalized for when it will begin there.
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Lejene Breckenridge-Peete contributed to this article