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Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- East Baton Rouge Parish Mosquito Abatement inspector Nelson Hughes checks the dip cup for mosquito larvae, at a sewage treatment center for a commercial property in Central, during service calls.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- East Baton Rouge Parish Mosquito Abatement inspector Nelson Hughes checks the dip cup for mosquito larvae, at a sewage treatment center for a commercial property in Central, during service calls.

EBR mosquito inspector on the front lines in battle against West Nile virus

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series on people with unusual jobs. What’s an usual job? It’s the kind of job that makes people say, “You do what for a living?” Want to suggest someone? Email people@theadvocate.com. Include a telephone number.

In a scum-filled sewage treatment tank behind a Central apartment complex, Nelson Hughes spotted the enemy.

“There’s a lot of them in here,” he said, his eyes scanning the sunken concrete tank where mosquito larvae swam around the sludge of stagnant “organic matter.”

A mosquito inspector for East Baton Rouge Parish, Hughes spread a shower of brown powder meant to kill the larvae, then turned to an inspector in training.

“Get me another one of these,” he said, handing her the empty canister. “I can see ’em moving.”

These are the front lines of the never-ending battle against Culex quinquefasciatus Say — commonly called the Southern house mosquito — the primary carrier of West Nile virus, which can cause flu-like symptoms in humans or turn deadly. The mosquito breeds in nutrient-rich water, especially the murky stuff found in the 180 private sewage treatment plants scattered throughout the parish, enough to keep three inspectors from the East Baton Rouge Parish Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control constantly busy.

These miniature versions of the large municipal sewage plants can serve a single restaurant or a subdivision. Some are immaculately maintained, others are scummy messes. Almost all smell foul in the summer heat.

At a pickup-truck-sized treatment plant behind a fast-food restaurant — his first of 30 stops on a Tuesday in late June — Hughes had to stand on a 5-gallon bucket surrounded by waist-high weeds. He reached into the tank with a cup attached to a long stick, scooped out black silty water and then studied the cup closely.

“This is mild right now,” he said of the smell, still bearable in the cooler morning air.

Hughes, a four-year veteran of the department, covers the Central and Greenwell Springs area. Easygoing and calm, he enjoys the work. It keeps him busy, he said.

He’s gotten used to the smell, and the stench doesn’t stick in his nostrils anymore when he eats his lunch in the truck between jobs.

The next two plants revealed no signs of larvae, either, but he could see mosquitoes living around the water.

Rain often pushes the larvae, which look like little wingless mosquitoes, farther down into the tanks, and they scatter when the inspectors come around, said Marcus Goss, an inspector supervisor. So, even when they find no larvae, they still spread chemicals to kill them.

At the third sewage plant of the morning, a huge, modern concrete structure serving a neighborhood of houses, Hughes opened a grating in the ground to scoop water. The trainee, Khady Faty, a recent Southern University graduate, pointed to a mass floating by and quickly grabbed Goss, “What is that?”

“Probably toilet paper,” Goss said. “Everything that goes down the toilet ends up here.”

“It looked like a monster,” Faty said, between laughs.

After two months at Mosquito Abatement, Faty said she has grown far less queasy.

“It teaches you not to be so grossed out,” she said.

Hughes and the other inspectors take their jobs seriously, especially with the threat of the West Nile virus. He knows that each positive test, a single larva found in his scoop, means many more larvae will become mosquitoes.

“Got one in there,” he said, “surely there are a lot more somewhere.”