“We had more than 400 families opt out on the census last year and after that the state said they wouldn’t accept it,” said Boxford Town Clerk Robin Phelan. “So a lot of people didn’t bother because it’s too burdensome.”
Massachusetts health officials are concerned about mosquitoes because they are known transmitters of West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis. Both are potentially fatal.
In 2012, the state tallied a record 33 human cases of West Nile virus and seven human cases of Eastern equine encephalitis, according to the Department of Public Health. Those included two West Nile cases in Essex County that resulted in the deaths of people in Georgetown and Amesbury.
Last year, the number of people diagnosed with West Nile dropped to eight, while there was only one confirmed case of EEE, which was not fatal. Health officials attributed the drop to aggressive spraying.
Mehaffey said chemicals used in the mosquito spray — including the insecticide prallethrin, used in a brand of spray called Duet — have been approved for use by state and federal environmental agencies as safe around humans, pets and other animals.
“Some people think we’re still using DDT,” he said. “There’s a lot of misconceptions out there.”
Despite assurances, state health officials note that contact with mosquito spray has been known to cause symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath and irritation of the eyes, ears and throat.
When the spraying occurs — typically by truck or helicopter at night — health officials warn residents to stay indoors, keep windows closed, turn off window fans, and keep pets inside.
As mosquito-borne illnesses become widespread, health officials say regional efforts to control the insects are vital to prevent outbreaks.
EEE is one of the most severe mosquito-transmitted diseases, with a 33 percent mortality rate and mild to severe brain damage possible among survivors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The illness poses the greatest risk to those under age 15 or over 50.
Mosquitoes also carry West Nile virus, which is less lethal but more common. The virus causes illnesses ranging from a fever to more serious diseases like encephalitis or meningitis.
Environmental groups have pushed state and local officials to reduce reliance on what they call harmful chemicals while promoting more organic alternatives.