For the Birds Radio Program: West Nile Virus in Chicago

Original Air Date: Oct. 1, 2002

Laura spent time in a Chicago suburb last week, thinking about West Nile Virus

Duration: 5′03″


I stayed overnight in Elmhurst, a suburb of Chicago, on September 19. I visit my sister fairly often, and though her neighborhood doesn’t get a big variety of birds, I can always count on seeing plenty of House Sparrows and House Finches, crows, jays, an occasional chickadee and Downy Woodpecker, and flocks of pigeons.

Or at least, I always used to be able to count on seeing those birds. This time I felt eerily locked in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring nightmare. Of course, autumn is supposed to be much quieter than springtime, but even without the testosterone-charged singing of spring, birds have always been easy to find in Elmhurst. Until this time. I didn’t see a single bird in my sister’s yard, or neighborhood, despite spending quite a bit of time searching. And it gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. In 2000, researchers in New York collected 80,000 dead birds and performed necropsies on over 4,000 of them. Thirty-one percent had died of West Nile Virus. But pesticide poisoning directly or indirectly caused the deaths of fully 48%, some of which died in accidents or from trauma while sickened or dying from pesticide exposure, others directly from the poisoning.

As of Friday, 29 people had died in Illinois from West Nile Virus–25% of all the deaths in the· entire US–and 551 people in Illinois were sick from the virus. So based on the Centers for Disease Control figures through September 27, Illinois is the current epicenter for the disease, with far more sick and dead people than any other state. One of the first to die in the Chicago area was actually a friend of my brother’s. So I understand the panic and fear people are feeling.

But that brother of mine is himself recovering from two recent surgeries, one for prostate and one for kidney cancer. Jimmy used to follow the DDT truck when we were children, riding his bike through the yellow fog, often grabbing onto a bar in the back of the truck and hanging on in a daring game with his friends. He was exposed to another pesticide, Agent Orange, when he was in Vietnam. He’s also a police officer who, like many police officers, has often held his radar gun in his lap when there’s a lull in traffic. So several different things in his life could have contributed to this sudden spate of cancers in his early 50s, and we’ll never know for sure what the exact cause was.

Nowadays pesticide spraying trucks go through Elmhurst in the middle of the night, when most children are in bed. Some nights the trucks pass through a neighborhood twice. O’Hare Airport is close enough that many people sleep through the night with their windows closed, though during hot spells people who can’t afford air conditioning still leave the windows opened. I guess it’s sort of a case of “name your poison” or at least name your disease, except that there is little or no evidence that aerial spraying has had any effect on limiting the spread of the virus. In Minnesota, the biggest area of infections has been in the Twin Cities metro area where mosquito control with pesticides has been going on for years. Mosquitoes have very short life cycles, and generations of surviving mosquitoes develop resistance to pesticides much more quickly than the dragonflies and birds that eat them.

Many Chicago area birds are dead now, these canaries in the coal mine that warned us of danger by their own deaths, but we’re so focused on the new danger of West Nile Virus that we’re ignoring the slower, more insidious killers we’re unleashing on ourselves. So far this year 116 people have died of West Nile Virus, nationwide. And so far this year over 500 thousand-that’s more than a half million–human beings have died of cancer nationwide. Are we going to cause more human deaths along the line than we’re preventing by these panic-driven spray projects?

Of course, many of us will elude both cancer and West Nile Virus, and live to ripe old ages. Let’s hope that the scenario doesn’t include us survivors mourning our dead as we walk through a silent, desolate landscape, no birds to lighten our spirits and bring beauty and cheer to our lives, until we succumb at last of a broken heart.