Despite wildlife advocates’ concerns, Loudoun to proceed with tick spraying

Despite concerns raised by local wildlife advocates, the Loudoun Board of Supervisors last week accepted the recommendations of the county’s Lyme Disease Commission and authorized the use of a tick-targeted insecticide spray at five county parks.

Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), who introduced the motion to approve the commission’s recommendations, said the majority of the commission’s funding would be devoted to educational and research initiatives. He also said that the county would gather data by collecting ticks before and after the spraying, to determine whether insecticide use should continue in the future.

“I think what we’re doing is very scientific, in the sense that we are going to do our tick drags, do our tick counts. We’re going to spray, and then we will do surveillance again to see what kind of results we are getting,” Buona said. “So then we will find out, is it even effective or not?”

With a blend of rural and suburban landscape that allows for the easy transfer of ticks from wildlife to people, Loudoun has been plagued by the highest rate of Lyme disease infection in Virginia, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In response to mounting public concerns about the illness, county supervisors voted in 2012 to declare a “Lyme Disease Awareness Year” and established the county Lyme Disease Commission to carry out a 10-point action plan to help reduce infection rates.

At its meeting Wednesday, the board approved the commission’s current request for $41,000 in funding, including $27,000 for research of local tick populations and $3,000 to spray a bifenthrin-based insecticide in county parks. The remainder of the budget was dedicated to informational signs and outreach materials, the commission said.

Local wildlife conservationists have said that personal preventive measures are more effective than spraying when it comes to avoiding Lyme infection. In a Feb. 5 position paper titled “Rebalancing Loudoun’s Approach to Lyme Disease Mitigation,” the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy highlighted environmental concerns with the use of the insecticide — which has been shown to be detrimental to bees, butterflies and other wildlife — and said that dressing appropriately and conducting thorough tick checks is a more reliable way to lower the risk of Lyme exposure.

Officials with the environmental group said in a statement that they were disappointed to see the board approve the spraying, a measure that they say is “potentially harmful to people, harmful to wildlife and bees in particular, gives citizens a false sense of security and has not been shown to be effective in reducing Lyme disease incidence.”

But the group said it was pleased “that some funds, although very limited, are being designated to education and signage.”

At the board meeting Wednesday, most supervisors expressed support for the spraying and emphasized that the application of the insecticide is limited and highly targeted.

“It is a very controlled environment; they even check the direction of the wind,” Supervisor Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) said, adding that she was present during a previous insecticide application. “I wasn’t more than probably 20 feet away from them when they were spraying, and it was totally fine. . . . It is nothing for folks to be stressed about.”

Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) said he had begun to receive e-mails from constituents who were concerned about the spraying; he reiterated that the spraying was carefully targeted. He was assured that the insecticide application was “surgical,” he said.

“People are picturing crop dusters,” Higgins said. “It’s not calling in the Air Force.”

But not all members of the board were entirely convinced of the need for spraying. Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) said he would “reluctantly support” the recommendations, despite his skepticism about the effectiveness of the insecticide.

“The most effective process is dressing appropriately,” he said. “When you’re done in the woods or in a park, go home and check yourself for ticks.”

York said he would be interested to see the research results regarding infected tick populations at the county parks.

“We will see,” he said. “I’m going to look at it a little bit more objectively next time around.”

Alyson Mahoney, conservation advocacy chair of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, said in an e-mail that the organization was glad to hear York voice skepticism about the spraying.

“We are particularly encouraged by Chairman York’s recognition of the evidence that personal protective measures are most effective,” she said. “We look forward to ongoing dialogue with the board and the Lyme commission.”

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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