Letters From Idaho

Night Noise

The West Nile virus attacked Boise this summer, and now planes spray the city with a supposedly harmless pesticide. But when facts are muddy and even the anchormen don’t know what’s safe, is it wise to let your sons play outside?

I’m watching TV and Shauna is flipping through the pages of a magazine when we hear the plane. I get up, walk into the darkness of the backyard. The plane skims in over the neighbors’ houses and appears maybe a hundred feet above the crown of our plum tree, a trio of gold lights passing slowly overhead. Its rumble is soft, not startling, more purr than roar: a single wing, twin engines, a long tail winking a white strobe. I can see only the lights. Otherwise the airplane is a silhouette sweeping across the stars, swallowing them on one side, then letting them back out on the other.

It disappears over the ridge to the east. I hold out my palms. Behind me I can hear Shauna moving through the kitchen, switching off the air conditioner, latching the windows.

Maybe 30 seconds later, the plane is back, gliding over the sagebrush. Again it passes over our yard, banking gently, its engines steady. It makes an almost peaceful sound. I stare into the wedge of space behind its wings, but see nothing, feel nothing. The boys’ plastic pool sits in the grass 10 feet away, half-filled with water. Their toys are dim shadows scattered here and there—upended trucks, a six-inch fireman, a plastic bucket.

The murmur of the engines fades. Our dog sighs at the screen door. Shauna switches off the kitchen lights and goes upstairs with her magazine.

And invisibly, all around me, onto the shingles, onto our grill cover and patio table, onto my sons’ sandbox and along the fenceline, onto the Russian olive and skeleton weed and cheatgrass in the gulch behind the house, onto me, and onto the neighbor’s houses, too, across their driveways and zinnias, over their mailboxes and through their basketball hoops and porch lights and down their chimneys and onto the windshields of their cars, drifts poison: a pesticide called Dibrom. It is an organophosphate, oily, straw-colored. It’s meant to kill mosquitoes.

I walk back inside, close the glass door, and wash my hands in the sink. The airplane makes one last pass, low and quiet, a crop-duster gliding over a field, then drifts over the ridge and is gone.

Supposedly Dibrom has a sharp, slightly acrid odor. I inhale but smell only the kitchen: lasagna, the dishwasher, hand soap.

In the air, all through our little neighborhood, mosquitoes are dying, crumpling, falling from the trees. Even though this is high desert, we have plenty of them, emerging mostly from standing puddles on over-watered lawns. And a few of them likely are carrying West Nile, a virus that does not exhibit symptoms in 80 percent of the people it infects and gives something like a fever and headache to the other 20 percent. Still, it can be deadly: This summer it has killed a pair of 70-year-old Idahoans, and contributed to the death of a 13-year-old boy who had also contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever. And last week it killed a fourth, a 66-year-old man who already had a non-aggressive form of leukemia. Idaho has had more cases of West Nile this summer than any other state.

If the wind stays down, these planes will fly all over Boise tonight, and their invisible mist will float down over 50,000 acres. And it has that name: West Nile. Dangerous-sounding. It is yet another threat detectable only by authorities; it travels the neighborhoods; it rises from the lawns of suburbia at dusk. Have you been bitten? Have you been tested? Do you know what today’s threat level is?

An 11-year-old EPA review that I find online says Dibrom causes “chronic effects in mammals, acute and chronic effects in aquatic organisms, and acute hazard to honey bees.” But the company contracted by the county to spray stresses that Dibrom is “harmless to insects, birds, fish, and humans.” Well, harmless to insects except for mosquitoes, of course.

Which is it? Toxic? Innocuous? The latter, our CBS affiliate suggests, our newspaper suggests. One TV station says we should close our windows at night, and hose off any outdoor furniture two days later. Another says not to worry at all; it’s perfectly safe. It should dissipate by morning.

Keep your cats inside, says the Boise Guardian. Dibrom, two Florida doctors say, has caused brain damage in guinea pigs. Dibrom, a Cornell study says, has caused increased incidence of stomach cancer in lab mice.

If the wind stays down, these planes will fly all over Boise tonight, and their invisible mist will float down over 50,000 acres. Three-quarters of an ounce per acre. Less than a shot glass. Tomorrow, weather permitting, they’ll spray same amount again.

Fear, politics, truth. But where is the truth if threats are everywhere? Viruses in the insects, poisons in the dew—the first thing our two sons did this morning was trot across the lawn to their sandbox and dump sand over each other’s heads.

The wife of the most recent West Nile victim was in the paper yesterday, saying “Until this year, I had never even heard of it, really.”

A woman on TV tonight said, “I mean, you have to have some confidence in the people who are in your city that if [Dibrom] was really extremely dangerous, you know, it must have been something that they’ve tested.”

Replace your window screens. Spray your toddlers with DEET. Clean your rain gutters.

I climb through the dark house, brush my teeth, climb into bed. The windows are shut; the bedroom is hot.

“I wish we were out of town this week,” Shauna whispers.

I’m thinking of the county commissioners, each one making $85,000 a year, staring up into the ceilings of their own bedrooms, their own children asleep around them, the little planes droning past above their heads, mosquitoes dropping from the trees.

I’m thinking of our boys, dreaming their dreams in their little beds down the hall, their fan spinning on their ceiling, their windows sealed shut.


TMN Contributing Writer Anthony Doerr is the author of four books: The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, and most recently, Memory Wall. He lives in Boise, Idaho, writes the “On Science” column for the Boston Globe, and is a 2010 Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Learn more at anthonydoerr.com. More by Anthony Doerr