The cargo jet’s interior looks like a pasteurization plant, but this plane doesn’t carry milk.
It’s one of a handful the U.S. Air Force uses to drop chemicals — everything from oil dispersants to insect killers — from the sky.
Tuesday’s mission: Spread 195 gallons of a pesticide known as Dibrom Concentrate across 50,000 acres in and outside of Fort Eustis in Newport News.
“We consider it a public service,” Maj. Mark Breidenbaugh, an entomologist, said while standing on the runway at Langley Air Force Base.
Aerial spraying of mosquitoes, while common in Hampton Roads and other parts of the nation, is under scrutiny by a handful of groups, particularly beekeepers who say that Dibrom kills honey bees and other pollinators.
“It causes a lot of damage in our ecosystem,” said Andrew Westrich, one of dozens of Peninsula residents to start beekeeping in the last 10 years. Agricultural officials attribute the trend to declining bee numbers and growing interest in local foods.
Despite advance warning from the Air Force and localities, beekeepers say they can’t always protect their hives from Dibrom, which can be “highly toxic” to bees, according to its product label.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Virginia Department of Health and other agencies say Dibrom does not pose significant health risks to people or the environment if properly applied. It is also used by farmers and pest control businesses.
A typical spraying will kill 90 to 95 percent of the adult mosquito population in the targeted area, said Breidenbaugh, who is based at Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Ohio.
While localities use other methods — mosquito-eating fish, spraying from trucks, etc. — aerial spraying is common when mosquito populations soar, said James Will, Langley’s entomology foreman. Steady rain in September led to plenty of standing water, an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, he said.
For example, one trap caught 5,000 mosquitoes about 10 days ago, he said. During dry periods, traps will catch as few as 30 mosquitoes.
Killing mosquitoes helps prevent the spread of diseases, such as West Nile Virus and Eastern equine encephalitis, Breidenbaugh said.
There were 20 such cases in Virginia in 2010; five affected humans, according to state Health Department data. The diseases were found in South Hampton Roads and other areas of the state but not on the Peninsula or the Middle Peninsula, where the Air Force does not spray.
“I don’t see an outbreak going on there,” Westrich said.
While cases are reported almost annually in South Hampton Roads, the Richmond area and other parts of the state, there haven’t been many in recent years on either the Peninsula or Middle Peninsula. The last time one of the diseases was spotted on the Peninsula was 2009 and on the Middle Peninsula it was 2003.
The relatively low number of cases shouldn’t lull the public into complacency, said Breidenbaugh.
“The mosquitoes that transmit these diseases are still out there,” he said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun