By Angene Johnson
After a recent dinner at my uncle’s house in Virginia, I finally had a chance to look at the March edition of National Geographic on my train ride back to Foggy Bottom (Washington, DC). As I flipped through the front of the magazine towards this month’s cover article, on saving energy in homes, the “Environment” article caught my eye. Entitled “Mosquito Hosts,” the short piece describes one consequence of the currently tanking economy that I hadn’t previously considered.
Apparently, the recent increase in home foreclosures has resulted in a spike in the number of abandoned homes which is accompanied by, in warmer parts of the country, an increase in the number of abandoned swimming pools, hot tubs, and decorative ponds. Without being regularly cared for, these stagnant bodies of water turn into unsightly green pools of algae and, more importantly, potential breeding grounds for disease carrying mosquitoes.
One solution to this problem is using anti- mosquito chemicals in these pools and ponds, but the chemicals are only effective for a few months. The article presents another solution; instead of adding chemicals to the water, some states are now using small, guppy- like, fish to eat the mosquito larvae and reduce the risk that these abandoned pools will contribute to the spread of vector born diseases.
As a native of Alaska–where swimming pools are not common—I was a bit skeptical as to the extent of the issue. I was wondering about how big a problem could there be with a few abandoned pools? I mentioned the article to my roommate, who’s from Los Angeles. When I discovered that she already knew about these “green pools,” and had even heard that they are the most significant factor contributing to West Nile Virus in her area, I decided to look further into this phenomenon.
An article published in the Los Angeles Times in June (2008) reported that green, abandoned swimming pools in Temecula, California, were up 45% in January, February, and March of 2008 compared with numbers from the same months in 2007. Additionally, a study published in the November 2008 edition of Emerging Infections Diseases attributed the increase in cases of West Nile Virus in Bakersfield, California in 2007 to increased home foreclosures and abandoned pools, after examining other potential contributing factors.
The two communities above, as well as many others across the country, have local agencies that visit reported green pools and treat them to kill the resident larvae. As mentioned before, while anti-mosquito chemicals may be initially effective, the treatments have to be repeated every couple of months to provide adequate protection from WNV for the community. Using fish would reduce the workload of local mosquito control agencies. Additionally, using chemicals to kill of mosquito larvae transforms green pools into toxic pools. While this may effectively address a community’s mosquito problem, it also creates a potential health hazard for birds and animals that may come in to contact with the chemically treated water. Furthermore, if the toxically treated waters were to enter the soil or water supply of a community, it could translate into negative health effects for the population.
As towns across the country experience an upsurge in home foreclosures, it is increasingly important that communities acknowledge the severity of the threat to public health posed by abandoned pools. Moreover, they should consider addressing the issue with fish instead of chemicals in order to avoid solving one environmental health problem by creating another.
Angene Johnson is from Fairbanks, Alaska and is currently working towards a BA in International Affairs with minors in Public Health and Biology as a junior at the George Washington University. She spent last semester at the University of Ghana and is looking forward to studying at the University of Botswana this coming fall. Eventually, she hopes to pursue a career in community health.