Spray first, tell lies about it later

Having blundered ahead and quickly ordered up $20,000 worth of pesticides to hose down 9 county parks as part of its very publicity-oriented campaign to pretend to be doing something about Lyme disease, our all-Republican Board of Supervisors is now trying to cover its tracks by throwing up a smokescreen of half truths and misinformation.

Apparently they were caught off guard by the protests that have been coming in from many groups who don’t very much like the idea of this massive and ill-advised chemical assault. The Loudoun beekeepers have been alarmed and complained to the Board, as have many citizens who don’t want their children and grandchildren being gratuitously exposed to dangerous chemicals and who were astonished that the Board would rush into this without any real public notice or discussion (or apparently any thought, either, but perhaps that goes without saying).

It would be one thing if there were a scrap of evidence to support the idea that this is an effective way to reduce the incidence of Lyme disease. A recent study in high-Lyme areas of Connecticut by researchers at Yale, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Connecticut Public Health Department found however that “spraying property with acaricides [i.e. pesticides that kill ticks]” was “not effective” in preventing infection.(Wearing long pants and using an insect repellent such as DEET were the only effective measures they found in this case-control study, which statistically compared actual case histories of infected and non-infected persons.)

So now the County has been rushing to post reassuring information and hand-waving justifications on its website about the spraying program. The trouble is, most of what they are saying is deliberately misleading, if not flat-out false.

For instance:

“Currently, the Centers for Disease Control recommend an application of an acaracide such as bifenthrin, to greatly reduce the number of ticks in your yard”

Actually, the CDC does nothing of the kind. It neutrally notes that acaracide applications can temporarily reduce tick populations by 50–90 percent, but does not “recommend” it, nor does the CDC assert that spraying can reduce the risk of infection with Lyme disease.

And as a recent study by researchers at Tufts University notes, the reason spraying has not been widely adopted is that it is not only ineffective in reducing disease transmission, but is dangerous to human health and counterproductive, killing beneficial organisms and selecting for pesticide resistance. They conclude: “One drawback is that this strategy may affect more arthropods than those directly targeted, and have unwanted consequences. Additionally, ill-timed applications of acaricides may be ineffective, and pose a hazard to human health. Overuse, or inappropriate use of acaricides can increase the incidence of resistance. In the last 2 years, there have been reports of resistance against organophosphates and permethrin developing in Boophilus ticks in the U.S.”

The County has also been trying to claim that the chemical being used, Talstar, is perfectly safe to the environment:

“When this pesticide is used properly by a professional, there are negligible risks to wildlife. However, the chemical can be toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates, thus the pesticide control professionals will not apply the chemical near ponds or streams”

In a fine piece of government doublespeak, this statement somehow fails to mention the No. 1 environmental hazard of Talstar; as noted on the official label: “This product is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment or residues on blooming crops or weeds.”

And as for the County’s evasive “can be toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates,” here’s what the label actually says: “This product is extremely toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates.”

Finally, the County’s reassuring words about Talstar’s dangers on humans is a masterpiece of omission:

“If a person (including a young child or a pregnant woman), or animal were to swallow, breathe or touch the chemical, the individual or animal is not likely to become ill. If the chemical comes into contact with the skin or eyes before it has dried, some individuals may have short term irritation that will likely disappear within 12 hours. “

Here’s what the Material Safety Data Sheet on Talstar actually says in full about hazards to humans: “Effects from overexposure may result from either swallowing, inhaling or coming into contact with the skin or eyes. Symptoms of overexposure include bleeding from the nose, tremors and convulsions. Contact with bifenthrin may occasionally produce skin sensations such as rashes, numbing, burning or tingling. These skin sensations are reversible and usually subside within 12 hours.”

Nice to leave out that bit about convulsions . . .  guess they didn’t want to upset anyone.

Again, the whole point is that the Board, falling over itself to assuage some very earnest and not very scientifically well-informed constituents, rushed to order up this pesticide spraying program without consulting any experts (except, that is, for Orkin Pest Control, which — I’m sure this will astonish you — proposed  . . . spraying the parks with pesticides).

The scientific illiteracy at work is all-too-evident in Supervisor “Ken” Reid’s ridiculous promise on his campaign website that if elected he would “spearhead” a campaign to “wipe out” ticks in Loudoun County. Even if it were possible to “wipe out” ticks by spraying pesticides everywhere, a little back of the envelope calculation might suggest that (a) it would take hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pesticides to accomplish that and (b) have irreparable and catastrophic consequences to ecosystems, bee populations, and human health.

Maybe next time the Board will give citizens and knowledgeable experts a chance to be heard — not just a few loudly clamoring hysterics, and a few companies that stand to profit from lucrative spraying contracts.

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