A bromeliad brouhaha in Miami-Dade as commissioners wilt at targeting buggy plant in Zika fight

Miami-Dade has spent a year warning about the Zika risks caused by bromeliad plants, whose colorful leaves form mini wells where mosquitoes love to breed. But on Tuesday, commissioners balked at limiting bromeliads in county landscaping as local farmers objected to the plants being stigmatized.

“Tomorrow’s headlines would be ‘Bromeliads Banned,’ ” Commissioner Dennis Moss said in opposing the proposal. “All of a sudden, not only will you have the county not buying them, you’ll have the residents not buying them.”

His comments came near the end of a 45-minute discussion on the ornamental plants, on a day when commissioners remained silent as activists were tossed from the chambers for trying to address the county’s new policy on detaining local inmates for immigration authorities. Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo called a special meeting on the detainer issue for Feb. 17, and barred the public from raising the topic during public comments Tuesday.

That left bromeliads as the day’s most hotly contested item for the 13-member County Commission.

Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz sponsored the legislation, which called for Miami-Dade to “limit the use of bromeliads in county landscaping whenever possible.” It drew sustained criticism from farmers and growers during the public-comments section of the meeting.

Given Miami’s rainy climate, “anything could become a mosquito-breeding ground, including tree joins, gutters, potholes, soda cans and ditches,” said Marisol Diaz, a staffer at the Dade County Farm Bureau. “The fact that this resolution was so quick to point to bromeliads appears to be a fear-based decision, rather than a logic-based decision.”

It was the latest counter-attack by bromeliad interests against a broad campaign targeting the colorful plants. While public-health officials have declared bromeliads worthy of special measures in the Zika battle, growers insist the strategies stem from faulty or non-existent science.

A 2009 study on the National Institutes of Health website looked at 120 bromeliads near a dengue-plagued neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. While the bromeliads were filled with mosquitoes, they weren’t the bugs linked to both dengue fever and Zika, the Aedes aegypti. Researchers found more of those mosquitoes in nearby manmade objects, like pots.

“These results demonstrate that bromeliads are not important producers of Aedes aegypti,” read the study from Brazil’s Memorias Journal on insect-borne infections.

The findings run counter to the local and national response to Zika. In an August briefing, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited bromeliads as one of the reasons Miami is so vulnerable to the mosquito-borne disease. “Eliminating standing water in a place where it rains every day, where there are bromeliad plants and many containers is just extraordinarily difficult,” Dr. Thomas Frieden told reporters. “This is truly the cockroach of mosquitoes and very difficult to get rid of.”

Alina Hudak, the deputy mayor overseeing Miami-Dade’s Zika efforts, said the county saw mosquito counts go down when they either treated or removed bromeliads from problem areas, including around the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, which removed its bromeliads during a fall Zika outbreak.

“We certainly have a lot of empirical information over the last six months in terms of what happened in the field,” Hudak said. “We know what was happening in the different locations where the bromeliads were becoming an issue.”

Miami, Miami Beach and other local governments have already removed bromeliads from public landscaping, part of an effort encouraged by state officials to cut back on the plants. Miami-Dade has stripped bromeliads from alongside county roads, but they remain elsewhere, including at Zoo Miami. In brochures and public campaigns, Miami-Dade has urged residents to drain bromeliads weekly of standing water as a way of breaking the breeding cycle of Zika-carrying mosquitoes.

Diaz, the sponsor of the bromeliad item, said he didn’t expect his resolution to spark such dissension among fellow commissioners. He agreed to defer a vote until a later meeting and give administrators more time to gather financial and scientific data about bromeliads and their costs to Miami-Dade’s landscaping budget.

“Mr. Chairman, if I would have known this discussion would have gone to this level,” Diaz said near the end of the afternoon debate, “I don’t even know if I would have brought this up.”

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