Positive West Nile test sparks Westchester mosquito debate

By LIZ BUTTON and COREY BAUMER
While news that mosquitoes collected in the Village of Rye Brook were the first to test positive for West Nile Virus has instilled fear in residents around Westchester County, this year’s numbers of virus-bearing mosquitoes are considerably lower than those of the past and those of neighboring counties, according to county health officials.

After the mosquito batch collected by inspectors from the Westchester County Department of Health in Rye Brook on July 16 tested positive at state labs, 62 other catch basins in the surrounding neighborhoods in the county were re-inspected and 10 were treated with a larvicide by county health inspectors.

While there have been no reported cases of West Nile Virus in humans this summer, late August is typically recorded as having the highest levels. Last year produced 29 positive mosquito batches and four human cases in the county. However, there were no Westchester deaths reported as a result of West Nile.

It is the Culex mosquito–commonly dubbed the “urban mosquito” by those in entomology–that carries West Nile. This mosquito only breeds in standing water collected in artificial containers such as bird feeders, buckets and toys.

Due to the prevalence of cisterns that collect standing water, certain residents of Rye’s Hen Island–considered ground zero for mosquitoes hysteria in Westchester–have identified it as particularly problematic when it comes to the risk of breeding of virus-bearing mosquitoes.

The 26-acre island, which lies off the coast of Milton Harbor in the City of Rye and is only accessible by boat, is made up of 34 privately owned seasonal cottages on the Long Island Sound, is without a central sewage system or electricity, and with no running water, people get their water from cisterns that collect rain from rooftops.

Ray Tartaglione, a Hen Island homeowner, has owned a vacation home there for more than 15 years. He has been a frequent fixture at Rye City Council meetings for the past six years, carrying on a sometimes solitary crusade to persuade the city to address what he feels are unsanitary conditions on the island that perpetuate the risk of virus-carrying mosquitoes breeding.

According to Tartaglione, the city and county should provide modern sewage and water service and improve sanitary conditions.

Tartaglione has filed multiple lawsuits to that effect over the last decade against Westchester County, Rye City and the island’s seven-member Board of Directors.

Some on the City Council as well as some of his fellow shareholders have called some of the publicity stunts Tartaglione has used in the past as crass, such as, “Mr. Floatie,” an excrement mascot costume which became a regular at City Council meetings in 2009.

Caren Halbfinger, director of public health, information, and communications at the Westchester County Department of Health, said there is no need for county residents to be worried if they take preventative measures by surveying their property and covering open containers that might collect standing water.

When it comes to Hen Island, Halbfinger said that, last summer, the Health Department set up mosquito traps for several weeks and found one mosquito pool that tested positive for West Nile.

But Halbfinger said that, on the county’s most recent inspection of Hen Island on July 8, inspectors found that residents were carefully following the county’s recommendations by covering and screening the cisterns they use to collect rainwater.

“We can’t quantify the risk, but anywhere there is standing water, there is a risk that these mosquitoes could develop. That’s why our proactive approach is coupled with education,” she said.

Since the beginning of the Hen Island controversy, the city’s position has been that officials do not have a right to go onto private property and force residents to take measures to alleviate what might be considered unhealthy conditions since, by law, it is the county that must make the determination whether there is a risk and enforce public health regulations. But Tartaglione said the county Health Department does not inspect often enough and minimizes the possible risks. City council members have agreed the county could stand to be more responsive to Rye’s mosquito prevention-related complaints and queries.

“You have to put effort into looking for a virus,” Tartaglione said. “The county does not have a mosquito control program, they have a larvacide program, which is killing larvae; it does not kill the infected adult mosquitoes. They would like you to believe that their larvacide program is a control program. Westchester County Health Department conducts the bare minimum of monitoring to help the New York State lab and vector control unit.”


email: liz@hometwn.com

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About Liz Button

Liz Button is a staff reporter for Hometown Media Group’s The Rye Sound Shore Review. Previously, she covered Bedford and Mount Kisco for The Daily Voice, an Internet-based, hyperlocal publication. She’s also written for Patch in her hometown of Trumbull, Conn., as a freelance reporter and fill-in editor. Preceding her time there, she worked in publishing in New York City. She is a 2008 graduate of Bowdoin College with a degree in English. Reach Liz at 914-653-1000 x20 or liz@hometwn.com; follow her on Twitter @ryesoundshore.