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Monday, June 9, 2014

Another bad thing that ticks do: Drive me to use synthetic chemicals

David Brooks

Mother Nature can be a real jerk sometimes, and the spread of Lyme disease-carrying ticks is a perfect example of that.

What was she thinking, putting a dangerous bacteria inside tiny little ticks that are active when the weather is nicest? Is she trying to make us so paranoid that we stay indoors and get fat? ...

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Mother Nature can be a real jerk sometimes, and the spread of Lyme disease-carrying ticks is a perfect example of that.

What was she thinking, putting a dangerous bacteria inside tiny little ticks that are active when the weather is nicest? Is she trying to make us so paranoid that we stay indoors and get fat?

It’s certainly making me paranoid. I wake up at 3 a.m. feeling invisible creatures crawling on my skin. (Turns out, there’s a word for this feeling: “formication.” No, not that word – it has an “m,” not an “n.”)

Today’s column is designed to make me feel better by celebrating the insecticides that are effective against ticks: pyrethrins, which are derived from chrysanthemum plants, and a synthetic variant known by the confusingly similar name permethrin.

“They said, let’s try such-and-such bond here, instead of there, to see if it would make them more effective and/or longer-lasting,” is how Alan Eaten, UNH’s tick expert, described the creation of permethrin.

It worked: The resulting chemical doesn’t just repel ticks, it can kill them on contact. “The ticks start crawling up the sprayed stuff and start dying, and they drop off,” said Eaton, who has been a professor and entomologist and New Hampshire bug expert for 35 years.

Unfortunately for those of us who prefer products as similar as possible to stuff that exists in the wild, synthetic permethrin works better than the natural pyrethrins. I’m worried enough about Lyme disease and other bacteria that New Hampshire black-legged ticks are starting to carry to go with the synthetic variant.

Permethrin has an advantage over the better-known chemical bug killer, DEET, which also repels ticks, because permethrin lasts much longer. Unlike permethrin, DEET evaporates as it repels (“volatizes” is the technical term) so it has to be re-applied.

“Permethrin adheres to surfaces really, really well – it adheres really tenaciously to cotton, and stays there even through washing,” said Eaton.

You can buy permethrin as a spray like DEET, but you can also buy clothing impregnated with it. I suspect continuing news about Lyme disease will make these more popular.

“Folks looking to buy the treated clothing are often going out of the country, where there’s a higher risk of ticks or mosquitoes ... but we also have folks doing a fair amount of hiking in New England that want treated clothing,” said Tom Carlson, store manager of the Eastern Mountain Sports store in Nashua, 281 Daniel Webster Highway.

EMS, like L.L. Bean and other outdoor retailers, sells a variety of permethrin shirts and pants. The permethrin stays in the fabric through scores of washings.

They are not cheap – $10 to $20 more than similar clothing – but I’m going to take the monetary plunge for peace of mind. I will still have to wear long pants and tuck them into my socks when in tick territory, such as field and the edge of woodlands, but nighttime paranoia should subside.

You can, in theory, accomplish this more cheaply by spraying lots of permethrin on your regular hiking clothes, either while they’re hanging free or in a big plastic bag. But you’ve got to be careful to cover everything, and it will only last for a few washings.

Like many synthetic molecules, permethrin has some unintended consequences. It is highly toxic to bees, and its use as a sprayed insecticide seems to be one of the factors that is leading to bee die-off.

Speaking as somebody with a beehive, this is not good. I don’t use it as an external spray – although if I still had small children at home, I might consider using it on my yard, particularly near the woods, so they could play outdoors.

I’m not concerned about permethrin’s effect on my own health, judging from Centers for Disease Control reports about its toxicity. You don’t want to slather the stuff on your skin like sunscreen, but I don’t think that wearing clothing drenched in the stuff will be an issue.

It’s really annoying that we have to worry about all this stuff just to enjoy the woods and fields in summertime. But that’s life: Nature is not only red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson said, she’s a jerk.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).