Already registered in 24 states, the TCS boxes work by enticing potential hosts of the ticks that carry Lyme disease bacteria and treating them with a chemical that kills ticks to reduce their overall numbers and lower the risk of a bite that could result in infection. The chemical used in the boxes has been the focus of some controversy however, as it is set to be banned in the EU because of its effects on honeybees.
Tick Control to Reduce Lyme Disease Cases
The boxes work by enticing the primary hosts of deer ticks and other types of ticks that carry bacteria such as Babesia and Ehrlichia. The majority of these hosts are not, despite the name, deer, but chipmunks and white footed mice. These animals enter the boxes, which are placed in suitable locations in the natural habitat, and are treated with a dose of fipronil, an acaricide that kills ticks during their larval and nymphal stages.
Using Fipronil to Kill Ticks
The result is a reduction in the overall number of ticks in an area and also a reduction in the number of ticks carrying bacteria, as it is during the larval and nymph stages of development that ticks tend to contract Lyme disease bacteria and other pathogens. States in which the device is registered include:
- North Carolina
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New York
- New Jersey
- Rhode Island
The tick control system boxes are child-resistant and have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The manufacturer, who designed the system with researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, claims that the TCS does not harm rodents or wildlife, other than the harm intended to the ticks, of course. More states are likely to register the device soon but it does not appear that any further studies are planned to evaluate the impact of the tick control system on incidences of Lyme disease in the areas in which it is used.
What is Fipronil and How Does it Work?
Fipronil is a widely used insect nerve agent that belongs to the phenylpyrazole chemical family. It works by disrupting the central nervous system of insects and blocking blocking the passage of chloride ions through the gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor and glutamate-gated chloride (GluCl) channels. Insects exposed to fipronil then suffer hyperexcitation of the CNS and muscles, causing what is likely a painful and torturous death involving intense spasms affecting the whole body. Mammals do not have these GluCl channels and insects have a more intense reaction to fipronil and similar agents because of better efficiency of the GABA receptor than in mammals.
The Dangers of Fipronil
Ticks and other undesirable wildlife are not the only beings affected by fipronil, however, with the EU set to ban the use of the chemical on corn and sunflowers after the end of 2013. The insect nerve agent’s ban was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of EU member states in a vote in July after fipronil was labeled a ‘high acute risk’ to honeybees in a report published in May by the European Food Safety Authority. Three other neonicotinoid agents for killing insects were also assessed as harmful based on available scientific evidence, resulting in their suspended use in the EU from April 2013.
Honeybees – Essential for Life as we Know it
Honeybees and other insect pollinators are vital for around three-quarters of the world’s crops, with an increasing awareness that pesticides have heavily affected honeybee populations to the point of collapse. Honeybees are dying out due to habitat loss, disease, overwork as bee colonies are driven across the country following crop harvests, and the removal from their hives of natural immune-boosting substances such as royal jelly and propolis, not to mention honey that is essential for bees’ health and survival. A reduction in pesticide use is part of an overall strategy that is now deemed vital for the reversal of colony collapse disorder and support of the honeybees return to a healthy populace.
Why the UK Failed to Vote for Ban on Dangerous Pesticide
The UK was the only EU member state to oppose the earlier nicotonoid ban and just one of three member states, along with Slovakia and the Czech Republic to abstain from the fipronil vote. Spain and Romania, the former being the biggest user of fipronil, voted against the ban. The UK’s DEFRA spokesperson noted that fipronil is not used in any pesticides on sale in the UK and so the ban would have ‘little impact’ there, clearly missing the point on helping other member states vote in a ban on a dangerous insecticide that is arguably already affecting them and which could, had the ban not been passed, have affected the UK at a later date.
UK Disappoints on Pesticide Ban
Paul de Zylva, of Friends of the Earth, said that “It’s disappointing to see the UK government abstaining from another cut and dried opportunity to protect bees.” Clearly, the increasing use of fipronil in the US would also attract the ire of environmental organizations keen to halt the crisis in honeybee populations. Fipronil is also used to control cockroach and termite populations, meaning that it is a commonly applied chemical in certain parts of the US where such pests are rife.
Fipronil in Frontline
The use of fipronil in closed system tick control boxes has not been tested for its effects on the health of local honeybees but it does appear unlikely to have anything like the impact that widespread spraying of crops has on honeybees. The pesticide is applied to the back of any mouse entering and exiting the TCS box by way of a small hanging wick soaked in fipronil that brushes the mouse’s back. The concentration of the insecticide is ten times less than that found in Frontline and other flea and tick control products used on dogs and cats. The pesticide is contained within the center of the box, making it virtually impossible for anyone to come in contact with the agent, or for the agent to end up exposed to the wider environment.
Getting fipronil on the skin, inhaling it, or swallowing it can cause adverse effects but the bait boxes are tamper-proof and would take some serious effort to open up to expose the pesticide. It is unlikely, therefore, that these tick-control boxes for Lyme disease prevention will seriously impact local honeybee populations and crop production. Hopefully, however, they will reduce the risk of exposure to ticks carrying Lyme disease bacteria.