Commentary: Questions on West Nile Virus

But air quality was not deemed to be an important factor for study among those scientists working on West Nile virus.

This indifference smacked of short-sightedness and arrogance to Jim West, a researcher who works with NoSpray Coalition, an environmental group that has been in the forefront of New York area protests against the spraying of insecticides.

West, 54, is not a scientist. He has music talent in his background and a solid block of engineering courses. Translation: he is mainly self-taught when it comes to biology and toxicology.

He decided to begin mapping the relationship between dead crows and ozone levels (see Web link at right.)

Consulting New York State records and ozone maps from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he noticed that there was a strong correlation between areas of high ozone levels and dead birds that turned up positive for West Nile virus.

West understands that strong correlations do not necessarily mean the relationship is a causal one.

"But this correlation continues to this very day," he said, adding that "anyone studying these publicly available maps and health department documents would have to wonder why the correlations are so strong and should want to further investigate."

Environmental Efforts and Ozone

As one of many examples, he points out that the first seven of eight dead positive crows were found this year in New Jersey's Middlesex county, which happens to be near oil refineries.

West probed further. He set his research sights on a chemical called MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) put into so-called reformulated gasoline as part of a federal effort to make gas burn cleaner.

Some critics believe that MTBE may be even more harmful than ozone. According to Peter Joseph, a toxicologist at the University of Pennsylvania, "symptoms vary widely as MTBE can affect the nervous system, breathing, the heart and trigger allergies."

To date, states are at various stages of reconsidering use of the chemical. A New York State ban on MTBE will go into effect in 2004.

Factoring in Ecological Context

West discovered that those New York City area counties with MTBE-reformulated gasoline reported that 117 dead crows were positive for West Nile virus. The other counties without the MTBE only reported 2 positives. The counties by then had tested about 570 dead birds.

Breaking the data down further, he found that in those MTBE-using counties designated as severe air pollution areas by the EPA, the percentage of positives of those birds tested was 24 times the number found in moderate- and less-polluted counties.

"Jim West's got some good ideas, but he's not a scientist," said Stone, who has met with West at the state pathology unit in Delmar and finds his modeling plausible. "Yes, we certainly need to take a look at air pollution, but I don't think that it has anything to do with West Nile-related morbidity."

Technology Linking Dead Birds and West Nile

Sean Ahearn, director of Hunter College's Center for the Analysis and Research of Spatial Information, offers another perspective. " I think it is extremely important to factor in air pollution and even MTBE because they may harm the immune system and make it easier for an infection to take hold."

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