Originally created 02/29/04

West Nile inspires mosquito destroyers



SAVANNAH, Ga. - Herb Nyberg turned his son's school science fair project into a cottage industry: the Larvasonic, a device that uses pulses of sound to kill mosquito larvae growing in standing water.

Mr. Nyberg started marketing the $4,500 gadget, which resembles a rubber pickle, to mosquito control professionals last year. Now he's seeking investors to develop a cheaper model for mom-and-pop consumers.

"A lot of it's because of the sensitivity of West Nile virus. People are definitely concerned about that and other vector-borne diseases," said Mr. Nyberg, of New Lyme, Conn., a former Navy submarine officer whose son, Michael, developed the prototype at age 15.

Mr. Nyberg is demonstrating his device this week at the American Mosquito Control Association conference, where vendors say the threat of West Nile has spawned a growing market of do-it-yourself mosquito busters.

Pressurized spray guns, larvacides and traps that lure mosquitoes by mimicking a cow's breath are available on the showroom floor for consumers seeking more protection than screen doors and citronella.

"It's been extraordinary for business," said Bill Phillips, the U.S. sales director for Indiana-based Curtis Dyna-Fog, which used a West Nile pun to name its Anileator pesticide sprayer. "I sold 600 of these last year just to moms and pops."

The Anileator's $246 price tag comes from its triple spray nozzles that break pesticides into microscopic particles that linger in the air, technology mostly used by professionals, Mr. Phillips said.

Brochures for the sprayer, launched last year, clearly take aim at consumers in bold text: "Protect your family against the West Nile virus."

West Nile, first reported in the United States in 1999, is spread to humans by mosquitoes. It infected 9,175 Americans last year, causing severe brain disease in 2,733 and killing 230.

Vendors say more Americans are taking mosquito control into their own hands because many communities still lack professional spraying and monitoring programs.

So Wellmark International, an Illinois-based larvacide producer, last year began selling $10 bottles of its Pre-Strike mosquito larva chemical at Wal-Mart stores.

American BioPhysics since 1998 has produced more than 400,000 of its Mosquito Magnets, which suck up the bugs like a vacuum cleaner after luring them with carbon dioxide and a chemical that mimics a cow's breath.

However, consumers should be wary, said Dr. Lyle Petersen, a West Nile expert at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said many products cropping up at retail stores and on the Internet don't work. Some of the best methods of minimizing mosquito bites don't cost anything.

"The most effective thing people can do is to get rid of standing water on their property," said Dr. Petersen, the acting director of the CDC's vector-borne disease division.

Installing screen doors and wearing bug repellants containing DEET are also cheap but effective, he said.

"Anybody who's going to tout their product as the be-all, end-all is not being fully up front," said Joe Corson, an entomologist and technical adviser to the Mosquito Control Association.

Companies that market mosquito gear say consumer products remain a relatively small niche. They've seen a boom in sales to professionals as more municipalities beef up their West Nile defenses.

"People are suddenly funding mosquito control programs again across the country," said Bill German, of Adapco, a Florida equipment producer. "It's probably grown the market by 25 percent."

Clarke Mosquito Control, of Illinois, introduced truck-mounted sprayers that link computers with radar guns to automatically adjust how much pesticide gets sprayed based on the truck's speed.

"I'd say 95 percent of the people here were doing this before West Nile virus," said George Balis, a Clarke consultant. "It's probably going to even out in the long term."