Residents demand health department ramp up public notification before pesticide spraying

Some say limited, English-only postings put some neighborhoods at risk

Marcetta Harris still remembers what it was like to wake up with inexplicably irritated eyes one mid-September morning in 2019.

The South Bronx resident had left her windows open the night before; at the tail end of a New York City summer, she wanted to cool down her home without using her air conditioner, something she tries to avoid.

“I go to the doctor the next day, my eyes are really red, and I didn’t understand why,” she said.

What Harris hadn’t realized was that the New York City Department of Health (DOH) had recently made its rounds through the Bronx spraying DeltaGard, a pesticide employed to combat the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus. Manufactured by German pharmaceutical company Bayer AG, the pesticide is known to cause eye irritation, which the company discloses in its safety documentation. DeltaGard also falls into a class of chemicals known as pyrethroids that are documented to be linked to neurodevelopmental deficits and skin and respiratory damage.

With what she said was insufficient warning from the health department, Harris said she unknowingly put herself in harm’s way. She’s one of a handful of South Bronx residents calling on the department to ramp up its communications with communities about the pesticides sprayed annually and the potential health risks.

The DOH routinely sprays DeltaGard or its counterpart, Anvil, through any borough where West Nile is detected each summer, typically between June and September. The department told the Mott Haven Herald it alerts New Yorkers before it sprays, via press releases, utility pole posters and Notify NYC, an enrollment-based SMS messaging service – all of which the department said are “typically in English.” These notifications contain safety instructions: Remain indoors, close windows and air conditioner vents, and wash skin, food and clothing if exposed during a spraying session.

Harris, along with Longwood resident Roland Lopez, said the paper signs posted in the South Bronx are few and far between.

“I saw one sign this year,” said Harris. “One sign. When you spray pesticides like that, everybody should be duly notified. And I’m not talking about putting up one sign.” 

Harris and Lopez both say they’ve never received a text message notification about spraying events. Cathryn Swan, media coordinator with the No Spray Coalition, a New York City-based advocacy group calling for a ban on pesticide usage throughout the city, said the signage she’s seen around her Brooklyn neighborhood before spraying events is “haphazard.” Mott Haven resident and former congressional candidate Julio Pabon, said he was only made aware of annual spraying a few years ago, through word-of-mouth from a neighbor, rather than formal city notice.

Lopez, who also serves as chair of the environmental committee on Bronx Community Board 2, believes limiting signage to English puts residents who primarily or exclusively speak Spanish in a uniquely vulnerable position.

“They know that they’re causing harm, they allow this in New York, and people are not aware of this,” Lopez said. “I’m saying to myself, ‘Am I just a freak from another planet that I’m concerned?’”

The administration of pesticides has met heated debate in New York for several decades, with activist groups suing the city over the practice in the early ‘00s and city Councilman Ben Kallos drafted a bill in 2019 to ban the use of RoundUp last year. Controversy aside, residents like Lopez and Harris remain firm that strong communication around their use is the bare minimum.