Week of 2/26/2006

Dear EarthTalk: 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.

CONTACTS: Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/lyme/index.htm; NRDC, www.nrdc.org/health/effects/pets/execsum.asp; Bio-Integral Resource Center, www.birc.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Did the car companies really conspire to kill the trolleys and streetcars of bygone days to force us to become dependent on automobiles instead?—Taylor Howe, San Francisco, CA

Indeed, in the 1920s automaker General Motors (GM) began a covert campaign to undermine the popular rail-based public transit systems that were ubiquitous in and around the country’s bustling urban areas. At the time, only one in 10 Americans owned cars and most people traveled by trolley and streetcar.

Within three decades, GM, with help from Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, Mack Truck and Phillips Petroleum, succeeded in decimating the nation’s trolley systems, while seeing to the creation of the federal highway system and the ensuing dominance of the automobile as America’s preferred mode of transport.

GM began by funding a company called National City Lines (NCL), which by 1946 controlled streetcar operations in 80 American cities. "Despite public opinion polls that showed 88 percent of the public favoring expansion of the rail lines after World War II, NCL systematically closed its streetcars down until, by 1955, only a few remained," writes author Jim Motavalli in his 2001 book, Forward Drive.

GM first replaced trolleys with free-roaming buses, eliminating the need for tracks embedded in the street and clearing the way for cars. As dramatized in a 1996 PBS docudrama, Taken for a Ride, Alfred P. Sloan, GM’s president at the time, said, "We’ve got 90 percent of the market out there that we can
turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars." And they did just that, with the help of GM subsidiaries Yellow Coach and Greyhound Bus. Sloan predicted that the jolting rides of buses would soon lead people to not want them and to buy GM’s cars instead.

GM was later instrumental in the creation of the National Highway Users Conference, which became the most powerful lobby in Washington. Highway lobbyists worked directly with lawmakers to craft highway-friendly legislation, and GM’s promotional films were showcasing America’s burgeoning interstate highway system as the realization of the so-called "American dream of freedom on wheels." When GM President Charles Wilson became Secretary of Defense in 1953, he worked with Congress to craft the $25 billion Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Referred to at the time as the "greatest public works project in the history of the world," the federally funded race to build roads from coast-to-coast was on.

Meanwhile, many eco-advocates and urban planners alike yearn for a rebirth of public transit. In the face of nightmarish traffic tie-ups nationwide, widespread urban sprawl, loss of open space, and the global warming we owe largely to automobiles, will we ever see a return to mass transit as the dominant mode for moving people? According to the Public Transportation Partnership for Tomorrow (PT2), mass transit ridership has grown 21 percent since 1995—faster than both vehicle and airline passenger miles logged over the same period. "Public transportation is a
means of helping our environment and conserving energy," says the PT2 website. "If one in ten Americans used public transportation regularly, U.S. reliance on foreign oil could be cut by more than 40 percent—the amount we import from Saudi Arabia each year."

CONTACTS: American Streetcar Scandal, www.njtpa.org/public_affairs/intrans/scandal.html; Transportation Partnership for Tomorrow, www.publictransportation.org/pt2.