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Wildlife activists urge county not to spray for ticks at public parks

As the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors considers recommendations for combating Lyme disease in the county, local wildlife conservationists are urging officials not to spray insecticides in public parks.

With spring approaching, the Loudoun Lyme Disease Commission on Tuesday presented its recommendations for steps to fight the spread of the disease before the county Finance and Government Services Committee. Those recommendations include targeting the disease-carrying ticks by spraying insecticide in five county parks.

But spraying is an ineffective and potentially harmful approach, according to officials with the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy. The organization released a position paper Feb. 5 titled “Rebalancing Loudoun’s Approach to Lyme Disease Mitigation,” citing research that shows that spraying for ticks is a questionable and often ineffective practice.

“I think the title of the paper really summarizes it. We need a rebalancing to happen,” said Nicole Hamilton, president of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy. “Right now, the emphasis is so heavy on the spraying angle. . . . We see this as an opportunity to flip what they’re doing and put more emphasis on the education and the outreach, because that’s what’s been proven to actually work and have an impact.”

With its mix of rural and suburban terrain — offering ample opportunity for wildlife to transfer infected parasites to people — Loudoun has one of the highest rates of Lyme infection in the nation, and the highest rate in the state, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, county supervisors responded to steadily mounting concern about the disease by declaring a “Lyme Disease Awareness Year” in the county and establishing the Lyme Disease Commission to implement a 10-point action plan to help reverse rising infection rates.

Health officials have said that more than 200 cases of Lyme disease are reported in Loudoun each year but that the actual number of infections is probably higher because many cases are not reported or misdiagnosed.

The current recommendations of the Lyme Disease Commission call for $41,500 in county funding, including $27,000 for research surrounding tick populations at local parks and $3,000 to spray insecticide in the five county parks. Informational signs and outreach materials account for the remainder of the budget in the commission’s recommendations.

The spraying would involve a single application of Talstar, a bifenthrin-based insecticide, to areas where ticks are most likely to come into contact with people.

David Goodfriend of the county Health Department, who provides staff support for the commission, said the commission had not yet had an opportunity to weigh in on the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s paper.

“The full report came out after the last full commission meeting,” he said. But one of the commission’s work groups planned to meet, he said, “to review both the position paper and also an integrated pest management plan for Loudoun County.”

He said that supervisors would consider the wildlife group’s paper before they vote on the Lyme commission’s recommendations.

Alysoun Mahoney, conservation advocacy chair with the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, said there should be greater focus on personal responsibility. Recommendations would include reminding residents to check themselves for ticks, to wear long sleeves and long pants outdoors, to choose light-colored clothing and to use insect repellents such as DEET.

“As I was researching this paper, I spoke to a biologist who said that nobody can control all the places where you might possibly come into contact with an infected tick, but you can control your own person,” she said.

Mahoney said she spoke with health officials in other states with high rates of Lyme disease.

“Health officials at many of those places said that either the state doesn’t spray public lands or, if it’s done at a local level, they’re not aware of it,” she said. “We know spraying kills ticks, but we have not seen any evidence that it reduces Lyme disease incidence.”

The wildlife group was relieved that the county commission did not recommend spraying for ticks at Loudoun’s Banshee Reeks nature preserve, Mahoney said.

The preserve was considered as a possible site for spraying last year, but the Board of Supervisors decided not to proceed with spraying there after local environmentalists, including the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, expressed strong concerns.

Mahoney said the environmental group is also uneasy about the example set by the county’s use of insecticide spray at county parks.

“Schools and [homeowners associations] and individual homeowners follow the county’s lead on this, so even if it’s just five parks sprayed, the impact is much wider,” she said.

She said the Lyme commission had contacted the conservancy immediately after the paper was issued to ask for more information about other communities with which the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy had consulted.

“These are all small steps, but we are optimistic that they are slowly moving us in the right direction,” Mahoney said.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to address the Lyme commission’s recommendations at a meeting Wednesday, officials said.

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.


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