As Earth Day dawns Sunday, Americans should consider the relationship between environmentalists and the former mayor of the capital of Earth. From New York's City Hall, Rudolph W. Giuliani successfully confronted green zealots while advancing science and technology. Here again, Giuliani stands well right of where his detractors might expect.
The West Nile virus debuted in the Western Hemisphere in Queens, New York's College Point community in August 1999. Among 62 New York State residents who contracted West Nile encephalitis (brain swelling) that year, seven died.
Rather than study the problem to death, that summer and in 2000, Giuliani launched widespread insecticide spraying against West Nile-carrying mosquitoes. Environmentalists went haywire.
The local No Spray Coalition sued to block fumigation. New York's Green party callously declared: "These diseases only kill the old and people whose health is already poor."
Giuliani firmly told Newsday that spraying was "perfectly safe." He added: "There are some people who are engaged in the business of wanting to frighten people out of their minds." In 2000, he told CNN: "The reality is that danger to human life is more important than birds, fish, and insects."
Before releasing water-borne larvicide and aerial- and ground-level pesticide, hundreds of Health Department employees used flyers and home visits to urge Queens residents to remain indoors with windows and air ducts closed during nighttime spraying. A 75-person, 24-hour hotline answered 150,000 calls. Doctors and journalists also were briefed.
"The response required daily, continuous communication among many agencies to coordinate," then-Assistant Health Commissioner Dr. Marcelle Layton told the New York Academy of Sciences on July 12, 2000. "The city also purchased 400,000 cans of mosquito repellent to distribute free of charge, an action modeled on our plans for mass medical distribution in case of bioterrorism. In retrospect, this was a very good decision because stores in some communities in Connecticut did run out of repellent."
I remember subsequently walking around the evening my Manhattan neighborhood was sprayed. While meandering through the East Village after I should have returned home, I heard an odd buzz and saw a small white pickup a block away, tailed by a white chemical cloud. I jogged to the next corner to avoid inhaling it. Minutes later, the buzz returned, and an insecticide-spewing truck turned the corner and headed toward me along a largely abandoned Third Avenue. I sprinted home and stayed there until morning.
While this was a bit creepy, the good news is that Giuliani's swift and thorough spraying programs yanked the wings off the mosquitoes that could have turned a manageable West Nile outbreak into a catastrophe.
"Unfortunately West Nile has spread, largely because other mayors didn't spray when they were cowed by the greens," says John Berlau, author of "Eco-Freaks: Environmentalism Is Hazardous to Your Health." "But West Nile could have become an immediate nationwide epidemic if not for the quick action of Giuliani and his Health Department," he adds.
Other New York politicians caved into the chemophobic activists. "We believe the risk of infection for...residents remains quite low," Nassau County's Health Commissioner announced after West Nile-infected mosquitoes reached Long Island in August 2001. But, as the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Angela Logomasini found, "the risk was not low enough for East Meadow residents Adeline Bisignano and Karl Fink. Both became ill with the virus at the end of that same month and died the following November."
Given West Nile's documented human toll, Giuliani did the right thing. In 1999, a Russian flare-up sickened 500 people, killing 40. A 1996 outbreak of West Nile meningitis and encephalitis centered in Bucharest, Romania, infected 90,000 and hospitalized 835. Seventeen died.