Fogging man near Chinese temple.
Photo gallery

While Malaysia is experimenting with genetically modified mosquitoes its current method of fighting mosquitoes is carried out by fogging men with a license to kill.

It has rained almost every day for the last few weeks but today was a quiet humid day in the heart of George Town’s old town area. The streets filled with bars and drunk foreigners at night have now changed to accommodate nutmeg drink vendors, fruit ice cream sellers and artisanal shops and hotels. The lobby of my hostel was filled with sunlight and old people watching a badminton tournament on the TV, smoking and reading books from beneath a fan circulating the morning air and mosquitoes.

Living in Penang for a while I’d had time to read and watch some environmental films which made me aware of just how bad our environment is and how it’s affecting everyone’s health and quality of life. If you don’t get sick immediately, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. Life in Europe is generally safer, so people tend to worry less about pests and disease carrying creatures.

In that moment nothing worried me as much as those small flying creatures that have been around since the dinosaur era. Mosquitoes in Europe are generally harmless. But no matter where you live, we all deal with many more cumulative toxins in our daily lives and the bigger we are the more we produce carbon dioxide and cumulative toxins that make us a potential victim for tiny terrorists, especially here in Southeastern Asia.

I stopped for a bit as the fan got switched off by the receptionist and he asked me to pay attention to the sudden noise in the distance and told me to come inside the corridor. The distant machine noise roared as it approached the the hotel and despite being told not to, I came out of the lobby to have a look. The clear blue sky was almost eclipsed by a yellow, toxic smoke and the all the surrounding heritage buildings were submerged in it.

Fogging man in heritage area.

The smoke spread rapidly, creeping through the gaps in the windows and doors. Under vehicles and into back yards. It sat on my skin and penetrated my nostrils. It spread quickly in to the lobby, corridors and guest rooms and what had been a bright, sunny, quiet day, started to feel like some military exercise. In the middle of the street, a person with fogging equipment appeared from the smokescreen with a ‘license to kill’, like something from the start of an apocalyptic film.

Fog man on duty.

While Malaysia is experimenting with genetically modified mosquitoes to try to make life difficult for disease carrying mosquitoes to breed, there is hope of a future without dengue. For now the quick, but temporary, solution is in the form of fogging, where that ‘license to kill’ is given to a bunch of cowboys whose main weapon is the fogger and their target the mosquitoes.

We have been fogging all our life” — explains one man, “It is a well-known sign of dengue. You can diagnose dengue from one kilometre away – by seeing the wafting fog filling up the air in your neighbourhood.

Man at work: Fogging taking place in heritage area. The amount of chemical being sprayed pushes people to hide inside. Doors and windows are kept open.
Working man wearing respirator.
Fog man's equipment — fogger.

It’s believed that smoke repels insects, even cigarette smoke. Therefore what is unhealthy for us can actually help us and gives us a sense of security.

As the foggers moved slowly down the street covering everything in a canvas of yellowish smoke, I was following each of their steps. The neighbourhood friendly fog men looked like a rock band making a theatrical entrance to the stage, with loud guitars roaring and tonnes of artificial smoke. However the impact of fogging does not last, like the memories of the first concert of my life.

Man on bike going through smoke curtain. Smoke is oily and leaves sticky stains.
I stayed in George Town's heritage area for half a year and witnessed occasional fogging in this neighbourhood only. Fogging in other neighbourhoods of George Town might happen more or less frequently and upon reports of prophylaxis carried out by the local councils.

Even if this show might appear cool and safe, seeing the fog men at work creates a false sense of security that the disease is under control. This is because fogging only targets adult mosquitoes and it is done only upon report of an incident and only once in a while. Toxic pesticides, that are also life threatening, are not aimed at the mosquito eggs and larva which will hatch and another portion of the world biggest human killers will be born.

The debate around fogging centres on whether it helps solve the mosquito issue or is actually creating another set of issues such as cancer. It uses a product called Resigen that is pushing the agenda of multinational chemical companies, which isn’t the best way to prevent the proliferation of dengue. Perhaps local authorities could shift their efforts from short-term chemical solutions to reducing the standing water in gutters? The environment in which mosquitoes thrive.