How to stop the Zika virus: Ease restrictions on pesticides

This summer, my wife and I are busy preparing for our first grandchild. While we are incredibly happy and cannot wait for his birth, we are also worried. The warm summer weather is going to bring mosquitoes. Normally, mosquitoes are no worse than a nuisance, but this year is different.

A woman walks past a giant fake mosquito placed on top of a bus shelter as part of an awareness campaign about the Zika virus in Chicago.
Jim Young | Reuters
A woman walks past a giant fake mosquito placed on top of a bus shelter as part of an awareness campaign about the Zika virus in Chicago.

It's been one year since the first warnings of the Zika virus were reported in Brazil. Since then, the virus, which is carried and spread by mosquitoes, has migrated north. Recently, it was reported that there are 500 cases of Zika in the United States. While none of those cases originated in the U.S. (they were all contracted while traveling to Latin America), over 200 of those cases are pregnant women.

Zika is particularly dangerous for pregnant women. While Zika very rarely causes severe side effects for those directly infected, it can cause serious and deadly birth defects in the womb. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel warning for pregnant women to avoid areas where Zika is prevalent, and soon that could include many of our states. The National Institutes of Health announced this weekend that the Zika virus, and the mosquitoes carrying it, could be in the United States as soon as next month.

There is currently no known cure or vaccine for Zika. While the House and Senate are at work providing funding to research and stop the spread of the virus, there is an easy way to help prevent the virus from becoming widespread in the United States.

Many cities, municipalities and other mosquito-control entities frequently have used pesticides to control and eliminate mosquito populations. But because of a duplicative permitting process, caused by a flawed court decision, some will find it more difficult to contain and kill mosquito populations this year that may be carrying Zika.

For 60 years before the enactment of the Clean Water Act, which established the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, pesticides like those that control mosquito populations were regulated exclusively under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. And for nearly 40 years after the enactment of the Clean Water Act, FIFRA exclusively regulated and approved those same pesticides.

But the Sixth Circuit Court, in a 2009 decision, decided to add another layer of bureaucratic red tape by requiring pesticide-spraying organizations and government agencies to apply for an NPDES permit in addition to approval under FIFRA. This is despite the fact that these pesticides are already regulated and approved by the Environmental Protection Agency or an EPA-approved state agency.

This regulation-by-judicial-fiat is a threat to public health. In 2012, one of the worst years for West Nile in the U.S., many states and communities were forced to bypass the NPDES process, waiting until after a public health emergency was declared to begin spraying for mosquitoes.

Recently, the House passed bipartisan legislation that I introduced to provide a real solution to this bureaucratic problem: The Zika Vector Control Act. This bill will suspend the NPDES requirements for two years, giving state and local governments an additional tool in preventing the spread of mosquitoes and the Zika virus they may carry. Pesticides used to kill mosquitoes carrying Zika will still be subject to appropriate regulation and oversight required under FIFRA.

This is a simple fix to what amounts to an expensive and time-consuming duplicative paperwork burden that puts pregnant women at risk of contracting Zika in their own communities. With the National Institutes of Health recently saying that mosquitoes carrying Zika could arrive in the United States as early as June, we cannot afford to delay a commonsense component in the efforts to combat Zika.

Unfortunately, in an effort to politicize a commonsense solution to protecting public health, President Obama has announced he will veto this reasonable legislation. I hope, for the sake of the millions of pregnant women like my daughter, he changes his mind.

Commentary by Congressman Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), a small businessman and farmer for over three decades. Gibbs serves on the Agriculture Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he chairs the Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment. Follow him on Twitter @RepBobGibbs.

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