SAN JOSE -- Responding to an outbreak of concerns about mosquito fogging during a buzzing West Nile season, county officials Thursday outlined why they believe the virus poses a greater danger than any potential pesticide threat.
Two reports -- one from the county's director of environmental health, the other from the head of pest management -- both concluded that there is no evidence to support fears that pesticide fogging done with the quantities used presents a greater health threat than the West Nile virus.
"We are fortunate to live in California, where they have the most restrictive pesticide regulations in the world," said Jim Blamey, the county's director of environmental health. "There is vigorous science-based review from regulatory organizations. The human health risks of the pesticide are very low, and any suggestion that it poses a risk greater than that of West Nile virus currently cannot be supported by scientific evidence."
But an ensemble of vocal residents at a committee meeting Thursday disagree with those findings, and an attorney who succeeded in stopping aerial spraying in Monterey in 2008 has joined a similar suit against Santa Clara County.
"No one knows how low a level is safe," Deborah Marks, of Sunnyvale, said. "Since 2004 there have been 19 West Nile cases in the county, and one fatal. That's 10 years with only one death, and for this minimal rate we are willing to spray neighborhoods with poison?"
The staff report states that use of pesticide is a last resort in an arsenal to fight proliferation of West Nile-infected mosquitoes, and acknowledges that "today's green or novel chemistries can be brown tomorrow, as is the case with several pesticides which at one time were considered 'beneficial' and later found to be 'harmful' and banned from use."
But acting vector control director Russ Parman said it's not like the old days when DDT and other chemicals were used without extensive review.
"Back then we didn't have the federal and state Environmental Protection Agency systems," he said. "Now there are questions that must be answered before a product goes to market. We know that it doesn't get into groundwater, it isn't absorbed by roots to spread throughout plants. It's crop-tolerant -- it can be used on edible crops. We know so much about it that we can say that's a safe way to use the product."
Meanwhile, Monterey County-based attorney Alexander Henson, who won a suit that stopped aerial spraying against the invasive light brown apple moth in that county in 2008, said state laws are being violated by fogging without doing a full environmental review.
Last week, he filed an addendum to a citizen's lawsuit seeking to force the county to conduct such a review before any further fogging operations are done.
Many speakers cited evidence that bees and other creatures have been affected despite the county's efforts to restrict spraying to dead-of-night operations targeting mosquitoes.
Cheriel Jensen, a Saratoga resident who initially filed the lawsuit, said that after her neighborhood was sprayed, a chorus of croaks she would hear every night went silent.
"The day after, all the frogs along the creek were dead," she said.
In 2007, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for counties affected by the West Nile virus, citing increased foreclosures and abandoned homes as reasons for a threefold increase in cases. That declaration cleared the way for pesticide use without environmental review, Henson said.
But "I can't believe a court is going to believe there's still an emergency in 2014 that justifies this ongoing activity," he said.
He won the 2008 case by convincing a judge that the invasive moth -- which posed threats to crops and the environment, but was not a direct hazard to humans -- did not constitute a state of emergency.
However, this year has seen a skyrocketing rate of the virus found in dead birds as well as positive mosquito hits, and last week the county reported the first five human cases. The last time the county has had that many in a single year was 2006.
Supervisor Dave Cortese said the board has received legal opinions from the county's lawyers regarding the environmental act issue and is taking it seriously. But he added that it cannot be shared publicly because it involves potential litigation against the county.
Cortese said that while he is sensitive to concerns about pesticides, he is also worried about a potential viral outbreak.
"The last thing we want to do is pick up the paper and find out people died," Cortese said, and "that it happened because we didn't deal with the mosquito problem."
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.