Puerto Ricans have every reason to be skeptical of the US government when it comes to disease control and public health. Over the past century, the island’s residents have been unwitting guinea pigs in controversial experiments ranging from birth control and cancer vaccines to chemical weapons and radiation. So, when the CDC declared a state of emergency for the Zika virus several months back — well before the virus had made any discernible impact on the commonwealth — many islanders felt something was off.
As of late June that something took on a name and a chemical formula when word got around that the insular government, at the behest of the CDC, would be combatting the aedes aegypti mosquito with a highly toxic insecticide called Naled. With rumors abounding that the airborne fumigation would begin on July 1st, a coalition of medical professionals and agricultural organizations took to the streets to protest the initiative and raise awareness amongst their fellow Boricuas.
Led by a nutritionist named Vilma Calderón, the coalition has put massive pressure on the Puerto Rican government over the past two weeks, with large protests forcing island health officials to admit they had approved the chemical’s use, though they claim a date has not yet been set for the spray campaign.
Used primarily on food crops and in greenhouses across the continental United States, Naled has been proven to damage bee, bird, and fish populations while causing significant harm to children, asthmatics, and people with respiratory problems. There is also widespread concern that Naled is carcinogenic, though not enough studies have been done to conclusively determine its effect in humans.
So far, Calderón and other activists have made no bones about their skepticism, openly suggesting that the US government is carrying out yet another experiment on Puerto Rico’s population. Politicians like New York’s Melissa Mark-Viverito and Puerto Rican gubernatorial candidate Ricardo Roselló have also come out publicly against the use of the pesticide, while the island’s government has clapped back claiming that the side effects are minimal compared to the massive public health crisis that awaits the island. In response, many specialists have questioned Naled’s effectiveness, advocating instead for an approach that targets mosquito larvae rather than the short-lived adult mosquito population.
Thus far there have been 2,162 confirmed cases of Zika in Puerto Rico, with 299 affecting pregnant women, though at a recent press conference, governor Alejandro García Padilla suggested that the worst is yet to come. On the whole, however, it seems island residents are much more concerned about the unforeseen costs of the fumigation — both in human and agricultural terms —at a time when the island’s future hangs in the balance.