I recently went home to Long Island to find that one of my siblings was undergoing treatment for a dangerous tick-transmitted disease. This isn’t the first time my family has suffered from a tick-related illness, and I blame New York State officials in part for outlawing useful tools to fight the region’s growing tick and mosquito populations.
Ticks transmit a number of diseases, including Babesiosis – a protozoan, which much like malaria attacks red blood cells — a number of which affected my family this year. Ticks are better known for carrying Lyme disease because thousands of Americans suffer from it every year — including another one of my siblings who had it twice! If that were not enough, one other relative developed an allergy to red meat after a lone star tick bite a few years ago.
Hopefully, that will be it for us, but maybe not. Health officials recently discovered a new, similar tick-transmitted illness, called Borrelia miyamotoi, and ticks also transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which was recently in the news as a likely cause of death of a 6-year-old girl in Louisiana.
One tool that helps reduce tick populations is the 4-Poster deer feeding station. It works like the insect repellents used on dogs, such as Frontline, but on deer, the main host for ticks. When the animals come to feed at 4-Poster stations, they rub against polls containing a pesticide, which eventually kills off the ticks. These systems have been shown to cut tick populations by 77 percent to 94 percent over several years.
Rather than create a systematic policy to employ this solution, New York State banned it everywhere except in Suffolk County, Long Island, where it is used in a very limited way: in an experiment on Shelter Island. Results of that experiment are positive, but use of the system is declining because of the cost of corn feed for the deer, according to a report in the Sag Harbor Press.
New York officials have also delayed use of 4-Poster feed stations for years because of concerns that feeding the animals would increase deer populations, which contribute to highway accidents and damage vegetation. Such concerns can and should be managed (which may also require culling of deer herds), and not used as an excuse to allow dangerous ticks to proliferate.
Politics also impedes mosquito-control efforts. In Connecticut, legislators recently passed a law to restrict the use of “larvicides,” which public officials add to ponds and anywhere water might collect to prevent mosquito larvae from developing.
These substances have been used for decades and there is little evidence that they have any adverse public health or environmental impacts. But lobstermen claim that the substances eventually reach the Long Island Sound where they harm lobsters and may have contributed to a lobster die off in 1999.
The state is about to complete a study on the issue of larvicides this fall, but lawmakers wouldn’t wait for the results. They also ignore valuable existing research, which has been going on for more than a decade, that contradicts the lobstermen’s claims.
This research shows that natural factors, such as the region’s warm waters and parasites, are more likely causes of low lobster yields, while pesticide exposure is too low to have an impact. In fact, the Long Island Sound’s warm waters are marginal for American Lobsters, being the southernmost portion of its habitat.
In addition, the 1999 lobster die off followed years of unusually high lobster catch (also known as “landings”), and current catch levels are more akin to historic levels. It may be overfishing, or just an anomaly that allowed lobstermen to do unusually well for a few years in the 1990s. It’s not reasonable to expect that to continue forever.
West Nile risks for people are surely more important than risks of pesticides to lobsters or public health. Last year, the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus caused a record number of deaths and the second highest number of cases (deaths and illnesses combined). In addition, West Nile can produce permanently debilitating neurological diseases.
Unfortunately, these two examples reflect a larger trend. With each passing year, regulators and lawmakers continue to restrict use of valuable tools that local public health officials need to fight dangerous pest-transmitted diseases. As their arsenal gets smaller, we can expect that more people will get sick.
Angela Logomasini, Ph.D., is a senior fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.