When mosquito abatement officials in Moab sprayed protesters with pesticide, they acted irresponsibly and without consideration of the dangers, a state expert says.
"There was no solid, good reason for that to happen," said Howard Deer, an associate professor with Utah State University's Extension Services."My job is to educate people in the safe and proper use of pesticides," Deer said Monday. "I didn't see that in Moab."
In the early morning hours of June 4, Moab Mosquito Abatement District Manager Jolene Welch ordered a district driver to operate a pesticide fogging machine along Powerhouse Road - despite at least 10 people standing along the roadside at the time.
The residents had gathered to protest the district's use of the pesticide Malathion, which they believe is dangerous.
Instead, they were exposed to a fine mist of the chemical, in apparent contradiction to warning labels and better judgment, Deer said.
He said Malathion is a much-maligned pesticide that is among the safest on the market. It has been used safely for more than 35 years, he said.
Still, he said its safety is relative.
"I would categorize Malathion as one of the least toxic pesticides used in the public health area today," he said. "Yet things aren't always as clear as we'd like them to be in this area. That's why it bears a precautionary label."
The brand of Malathion used by Moab, called Cythion, warns users against "swallowing, inhalation and skin contact."
Deer said the emotional trauma of exposing people to a chemical they believe might be dangerous also has to be taken into account.
"All in all, I just don't think it was necessary," he said.
The University of Utah Poison Control Center said Malathion, taken in sufficient quantities, can cause respiratory distress, vomiting and heart problems.
Welch said the protesters had been given fair warning."People don't realize that they were out there at 2 in the morning," she said. "They were notified that we were coming out to fog. They were blocking the road."
Two residents sat in front of the fogger until police arrived and asked them to move. They then stood in front of their property while Welch ordered the operation to continue.
She said she stood alongside them as the fogger passed. "Nobody was sprayed," she said. The fogger creates a fine mist that she said doesn't cling to skin or clothing.
"But you can smell it," she said. "It stinks."
The incident is the latest in a two-year war over mosquito abatement in Moab. Last year, Welch said, the district didn't spray along the road in hopes that "they'd get ate up and come asking for us this year."
Welch has since given up trying to negotiate with the protesters.
"There's never going to be a resolution," she said.
Welch said the district fogs at night so as not to expose the public. And she acknowledged its policy of turning the fogger off if drivers encounter ped-estrians.
Andrew Riley said he was relying on that policy when he stood in front of his trailer home that morning. He was shocked when the fogging went ahead.
"We acted out of desperation," he said. "We feel there's a problem with the pesticides they're using."
Welch said she needed to spray the area to kill mosquitoes that breed in a creek behind the homes.
"I have a responsibility to the public health," she said.
Deer finds that statement ironic.
"I'd agree that it's hard to talk about the public good on one hand and then have happen what happened," he said.
"It wasn't very responsible," agreed Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District manager Sam Dickson.
He said his district also sprays at odd hours to avoid exposing the public, even though he does not believe Malathion is a particularly dangerous substance.
"We turn our machine off immediately when we encounter people," he said.
"Even though it's a safe product, nobody wants to be exposed to a pesticide," Dickson said. "I wouldn't spray myself."
Dickson said he's worried the Moab incident might give mosquito abatement district's elsewhere a bad name. He and others of the 14-odd district managers hope to meet with Welch later in hopes of finding a solution to the stalemate.
"It doesn't help much for public relations," he said.