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Foreclosures can make mosquito problem worse

April 25th, 2012

Foreclosures can make mosquito problem worse

Homes abandoned to foreclosures have given rise to an unexpected side effect that will only get worse this summer: stagnant swimming pools and overgrown yards transforming into mosquito breeding grounds.

This year, early-season heat and rain could combine with predictions of an uptick in foreclosures to create the “buggy summer” officials dread. Already, the weather likely has allowed for an additional generation of mosquitoes to take flight, said Metro Public Health Department managers.

Metro’s pest control division – a team of two – checks known breeding areas in the winter to kill as many mosquito larvae as possible. It’s the best way to keep the population down and decrease the threat of West Nile virus, and it allows staffers to be ready to respond to called-in resident complaints, which rise along with temperatures, said Larry Cole, pest management director.

Concerns about foreclosed homes put officials in a tricky situation. When calls come during the winter, officials try to track down property owners to ask that they be mindful of eliminating standing water. But it takes time to find owners.

And, as Cole says, “those mosquitoes are not going to wait.”

So if it’s already mosquito season, Metro acts as fast as possible, dropping larvicide bricks or grains into abandoned pools. “We’re going to larvicide because it’s a health issue,” Cole said.

On his rounds last week, pest control staffer John Pico responded to resident complaints across the eastern half of Davidson County. One of the pink slips of paper he held was a note about standing water in a pool on Jacksonian Drive in Hermitage.

At the tree-shaded white ranch-style home, Pico looked over the back gate, eyeing the pool, unsure whether it held water.

He knocked on the front door – no answer – and grabbed a pole from his truck. At its end hung a simple plastic cup to dip into the water to check for larvae. He slipped through the side gate, noting that he’d already whistled: “No dog came,” he said.

Around back, Pico eyed the pool, which was full of scuzzy green water. From the dilapidated red wooden deck, he spotted another concern: a fish pond.

The water there was a brighter green but hosted only a few mosquito larvae. Pico tossed in some larvicide and moved on to the next threat: a debris-covered hot tub. Before leaving, he’d also looked at water puddled on a camper trailer and inside a tire.

Vigilance needed

Mosquitoes typically lay eggs in stagnant water – any temporary puddle could work if it remains for a week or more. Larvae emerge from eggs into the water, where larvicide can kill them. The larvicides, generally nontoxic to human touch, are used under Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

Veterans such as Pico and Cole say abandoned pools draw the most complaints from neighbors but don’t always house the most mosquitoes. Cole remembers repeat calls to Antioch for complaints about rampant mosquitoes near an abandoned home.

But the pool wasn’t the culprit.

“It was a little pie pan that was there in the sun,” Cole said. “You couldn’t even see the water because of all the larvae in there.”

In La Vergne and Murfreesboro, which have seen some of Middle Tennessee’s highest rates of foreclosure, officials typically begin their responses to nuisance property complaints by mailing maintenance notices to owners. As in Metro, officials try to avoid spending staff time and supplies on properties where they might not be repaid.

“We want to be good stewards of taxpayers’ money,” said Gary Whitaker, chief building official in Murfreesboro.

In recent years, Whitaker has been able to shift the duties of his staff away from permitting requests, which have decreased, and toward property maintenance complaints.

But officials can do only so much. In La Vergne, for example, a single codes enforcement officer handles a wide range of complaints. And longer mosquito breeding seasons can outlast the most potent larvicides, which last 90 days.

So officials depend on homeowners’ vigilance to eliminate standing water.

Pico said common-sense actions make a difference: flipping over dog bowls and other containers, pulling tarps taut and keeping pond water in motion.

Where there’s no one to tend to such things, neighbors should call to file complaints, Pico said. Experience has taught him that those are almost guaranteed, once it gets hot.

“It keeps you busy,” Pico said. “You’ve got job security.”

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