As warm weather approaches I know we’re going to have a problem again with ticks near our home. Are there any eco-safe applications we could use to get rid of them?
—Thomas Cohn, Bedford Corners, NY
“Tick season” will be upon us sooner than we know it, as early as April if post-winter weather warms up fast. And ticks can pass on more diseases to humans than any other creepy crawly except the mosquito.
Small bugs with big bites, ticks are of course associated most with Lyme Disease, symptoms of which include fever, headache, fatigue, and a distinctive circular skin rash. Left untreated, infection can spread to joints and the nervous system and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, to the heart as well.
Modern science has devised many ways to keep ticks at bay, most involving harsh chemicals with dubious safety records. Indeed, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the majority of tick products on the market today contain toxins, known collectively as organophosphate insecticides (OPs), which not only kill insects but can also damage the nervous systems of pets and people.
Studies have shown that children exposed to OPs may face increased risk of health problems later in life, including cancer and Parkinson’s disease. One recent study showed that people with any history of in-home exposure to insecticides containing OPs faced twice the risk of Parkinson’s as the rest of the population. In addition, four OPs used in pet products increase cancers in lab animals, and as such may cause cancer in humans. One study showed children of pregnant women exposed to products containing OPs to be 250 percent more likely than those in a control group to develop brain cancer before the age of five. According to NRDC, pesticides that contain the OPs chlorpyrifos, dichlorvos, phosmet, tetrachlorvinphos, naled, diazinon and Malathion should be avoided, and regulated much more stringently by government.
While there is no environmentally safe and effective way to spray buildings or backyards to fight ticks, the Bio-Integral Resource Center urges an approach that manages the habitat in and around your home to make it less hospitable to ticks. Ticks are attracted to humidity, so deep and infrequent watering of your lawn will let it dry out between applications. Vegetation should be cut below ankle height, the brush along paths and roadways removed, and trees pruned to let the light through. This will also make your property less appealing to animal hosts such as rabbits, rodents, possum, raccoons and deer. Further steps include placing soap, hair, garlic, lilac, jasmine or holly—all having deer-repelling qualities—around your property.
Because pets are frequent carriers, their sleeping quarters should be vacuumed frequently. NRDC also recommends that pet owners ask their veterinarian about dog and cat collars containing fipronil, a chemical which blocks nerve transmission in insects but has little if any effect on people or pets.
The best advice when exploring the outdoors during tick season is to always cover yourself from head to toe, and to wear light-colored clothing so you can spot ticks more easily if they do get on you. Search yourself thoroughly, particularly at the base of your skull, and wash clothes immediately afterwards.