Tick, tock, tick, tock …

Ames Hazmat

How about a round of badminton while we wait for the burgers to come off the grill?

Yes, it’s that time again. Winter is finally over, Ice Season is melting into slushy, gritty memories, and we’re moving into that other half of the year: Tick season.

Here in the Ozarks, tick season runs from about the first week in April through the end of December, with occasional outbreaks in January, February, and March. By mid-May roving hordes of the little monsters will be moving through the underbrush like piranhas with legs, armored specks of concentrated evil seeking whom they may devour.

We’re all becoming pretty current on the latest tick-borne diseases in humans, and the toll on pets is equally terrifying. Repellants, foggers and sprays fill the air like morning mist; gatherings of the beautiful people are aromatic with eau de permethrin, and the rest of us bathe in Deet as if were Chanel No. 5.

The awful truth, however, is that nothing seems to work: we cover ourselves with “Deep Woods Off” to cross the lawn to the mailbox, and by the time we get back to the front door with the junk mail our shoelaces are seething with activity.

At the risk of betraying an obsession, I will say that I have written on the subject of ticks before, focusing a little more on what they are rather than what they do:  http://turningupbones.com/ticking-like-a-time-bomb/

What to do? Well, there are, in fact, two chemicals that are widely used to deal with ticks around the home:  N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET for short), and permethrin.

Like the atom bomb and Agent Orange, DEET was invented by the US military in the latter stages of World War II; jungle warfare had taken a toll on soldiers who were not acclimated to the wide range of insect-borne diseases that they encountered in the Pacific and Asia, and the army wanted a single product that would defend against an assortment of pests. DEET is effective against the worst offender, the mosquito, not just repelling the creatures but killing them on contact. Unfortunately, it is only effective while still wet: once the application has dried completely, the hapless jungle warrior might just as well be slathered up with carrot puree. Furthermore, DEET is a powerful solvent, and will destroy rayon, nail polish, and spandex (“Holy holes in the tights, Batman!”) and is known to have toxic side effects on a very small percentage of humans. Mosquitos also lose their susceptibility to it after the first exposure, so it becomes less effective the longer you use it.

And ticks? Well, they don’t exactly slurp down DEET like it was coconut pie, but it might as well be: unless the tick actually ingests the chemical it has no effect, and the DEET is not recommended for application directly to a person’s skin, which is the only place where the tick would ingest it — in the act of biting, which would seem to defeat the purpose.

Permethrin is somewhat more effective against ticks: it kills on contact, and it continues to work even after it has dried; it will even remain active after repeated washings. In small doses it is not known to be toxic to humans — although, as with any insecticide, infants and breastfeeding mothers should avoid it, just to be safe. Toilet paper tubes stuffed with cotton that has been soaked in permethrin can be placed in locations frequented by mice, who use the cotton for nesting material, killing ticks at one of the early stages in their development without harm to themselves.

The downside? Permethrin is very harmful to cats even in small doses: flea and tick medications containing permethrin that are perfectly safe for dogs will kill cats outright. Permethrin also does not discriminate between “good” and “bad” arthropods: it will kill the mosquitos and ticks, but also the honeybees and spiders. If it gets into water it poisons fish, frogs and other aquatic life, and in large doses it can harm humans and other mammals. It persists in the environment for up to ten weeks, so repeated applications can result in dangerously high concentrations in and around the home.

This flyer from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (in PDF format) provides some pretty detailed information, including preventive measures, comparisons of insecticides and repellents, and treatment for tick bites. (The data used to compile this guide comes originally from the EPA, so if you’re a Republican you won’t want to read it.)

So chemistry still hasn’t provided a magic bullet. The old-fashioned approach is still the best: light-colored clothes covering the entire body so that ticks can be easily seen and brushed off, tightly-woven socks, pants tucked into boots — all those things that we so look forward to when the weather reaches 98 degrees with 85% humidity. Contrary to popular belief, ticks don’t drop out of the trees onto their prey — they can only see a few inches, so you’ve got to be on top of them before they’ll make their move — they simply crawl to the extreme end of leaves and twigs and wait for something to brush against their perch to they can grab on for dinner and a free ride. This means that the worst infestations can be avoided simply by keeping to the open trails, avoiding tall weeds and grass, and staying well away from underbrush. Tough rules to follow when you’re trying to mow the lawn or weed the garden, but every little bit helps. Ticks usually develop in stages on small, medium, and large hosts, so providing permethrin-treated bedding material for mice and packrats (you’ve got them, don’t fool yourself), fencing out deer, and keeping dogs and cats indoors will help break up the life cycle.  Chickens and guinea hens eat ticks, so keeping a few fowl around the back door doesn’t hurt; opossums, although unlovely, are also known to nibble on the little devils.

So pull on your gumboots, tuck in your white jeans, duct-tape your gloves to your shirt cuffs, snuggle that collar up tight — and get out there and enjoy the great outdoors!

When in danger, When in doubt


The appropriate protective gear makes all the difference in the world.

In the year 2000, the first full reporting year after West Nile Virus in the US was first identified, two people in the New York City area (total population just over 8 million) died from illnesses associated with the disease. News outlets went a little crazy: dead blue jays became more popular as establishing video on the nightly news than the Empire State Building or Rudy Giuliani or even the standard crowd-of-people-hurrying-down-the-sidewalk video that had been the staple of news stories about NYC since the invention of television.

The fact that the mortality rate from West Nile is fairly low (usually only between 3 – 7% of cases result in death) did little to deaden the media roar, and West Nile white noise very effectively drowned out the fact that, during the same year, more than 2,700 New Yorkers had died of the flu.

When in danger,
When in doubt,
Run in circles
Scream and shout!

– Anonymous source, U.S. military, Infantry Journal, Vol. 35, (1929), p. 369.

West Nile was, after all, a tropical disease, first identified in Africa, that had jumped the pond and landed on our shores. It was from over there – Pat Robertson and Bill O’Reilly were right: the long-awaited African Armageddon was upon us. Suburban mothers who had claimed for years that minute doses of fluoride in the drinking water were injuring their children now began slathering those same kids in enough N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (otherwise known as DEET) to stun a brontosaurus. Even though West Nile was not in the top 10 causes of death in the US – or the top 100, or the top 500 – it received more air time on the news than any other illness during the first few years after its appearance here. The higher death rate from people being crushed by falling furniture just didn’t have the same breathless, stay-tuned immediacy.

The flu, meanwhile, was … well, just the flu: it didn’t have anything African in its title, and you didn’t have the handy dead-bird video for your intro every night.

As the new milennium took hold, so did the new disease: the number of deaths nationwide passed two hundred per annum within only two years. When the first suspected cases were reported in Texas, some communities even rescheduled high-school football games – and in Texas, there is no more graphic indicator of public concern. From one year to the next West Nile Virus infections waxed and waned, dropping to 32 deaths in 2009, while ramping up again to an all-time high of 286 in 2012 – respectable, but still never quite making it past the “other causes” category in US mortality lists.

In 2010, firearms killed just over 31,000 Americans (not including combat deaths). West Nile Virus killed 57. Our elected officials promised to address the scourge of West Nile with all the resources at their disposal – presumably by giving everyone a handgun to shoot the virus with. Lawmakers made it clear that West Nile was threatening our way of life, while unregulated handguns had nothing to do with shooting deaths and sedentary sugar-heavy diets had nothing to do with childhood obesity. Nitric oxide and sulphuric acid plumes in the atmosphere over North Texas in 2010 were not in any way the result of unregulated manufacturing facilities in Ellis County but were instead attributed by politicians to the 2009 Gay Pride parade in Dallas.

This week saw the first home-grown case of Ebola hemorrhagic fever, in – of course – Texas, the state that gave us such giants of scientific and medical insight as Louie Gohmert and Joe Barton. (The patient appears to have contracted the disease while traveling in West Africa.) Unlike West Nile, which is only transmitted by blood-to-blood contact, such as through the bite of a female mosquito, Ebola can be transmitted by ingesting any of the bodily fluids of an infected individual, such as vomit, the effluent from diarrhoea, or particles of mucus released in a sneeze. Any person infected with Ebola can be a significant source of further spread of the disease, if he or she is not isolated and treated promptly and properly.

That said, the odds of any one individual in the United States contracting the disease from the Dallas patient are slim, especially given that the patient is currently in treatment and does not appear to have passed on his infection.

In fact, the greatest danger in any disease occurence is, and always has been, that posed by populations reacting in irrational or uninformed ways. Polio has been eradicated in most of the world – except in parts of Nigeria and Pakistan where vaccination is resisted by people who have been convinced by unscrupulous political leaders that the whole thing is just an American plot to sterilize their children; as a result, those children are being subjected to one of the most devastating illnesses known to man. During the various plagues that bedeviled medieval Europe, Jews and Muslims were often blamed for the outbreaks simply because those populations seemed to be mysteriously less susceptible: that immunity was, of course, not due to some sort of satanic conspiracy, but because Jewish and Islamic cultural traditions required regular bathing, hand-washing before meals, and careful storage and handling of food, limiting exposure to rats, insects, and infected people. Even in modern America, many people in farming communities kill snakes, foxes, coyotes and other predators on sight, allowing rats and other rodents to infest pastures, barns and feed bins; it’s no accident that modern outbreaks of bubonic plague occur exclusively in these places.

If I were going to be traveling to Sierra Leone over the next few weeks, would I be worried? You bet. Am I going to start wearing surgical gloves and a filter mask in the grocery store? I don’t think so.

Is Ebola a terrible disease. You bet it is. This year’s outbreak in west Africa is wiping out entire families, decimating entire towns — without proper care and control efforts, a lot of people die. Is this likely to be what kills me when my number is up? Probably not: so far this year, US injuries and death resulting from tipping over vending machines trying to get a snack without paying for it outnumber Ebola hospitalizations here by over 50 to 1.

I’ll lay off the free Moon Pies and Cheezits for a while and take my chances with the rest.


“There was an old lady…”

When I was a child in Montgomery, Alabama, during the very early sixties, I can remember certain areas around town that spent much of the year buried under a green and hairy shroud that covered telephone poles, buildings, billboards, trees, parked cars, slow-moving pedestrians: the dreaded kudzu. Continue reading