New York City, and particularly Staten Island, has a real problem: Lyme Disease. First discovered in Lyme, Connecticut, hence its name, the Lyme bacterium causes real difficulties for residents of Staten Island. This disease causes all sorts of symptoms that can easily be mistaken for other illnesses, including a run-down feeling, chronic fatigue, joint pain and damage (which can be mistaken for arthritis), heart problems from long term infections, and a host of other problems which mimic other diseases. One of the additional issues with Lyme disease is its quite difficulty to culture and diagnose. Many tests that are broad spectrum bacteria tests miss it, as it does not culture the way most other bacteria do, and many of the tests for Lyme often provide false negatives.
However, the number one issue with Lyme disease is its transmission. The only known transmission vector for Lyme disease is ticks, particularly deer ticks. This has unfortunately given deer a bad reputation on Staten Island, however, they are not the only source of the problem. The main source of this bacteria are the white footed mouse and chipmunk. These are the two animals who are carrying the Lyme bacteria that the nymph and larval, or baby, ticks become infected with. In other words, the baby ticks are not born infected with Lyme disease. They acquire it from their first host animal, which is the mouse and chipmunk. Once they are infected, however, these baby ticks will then seek other meals as they grow and develop, including deer, larger rodents, and humans.
Due to the itty-bitty size of these larval and nymph ticks, most of the time they are not observed in a short amount of time on their hosts, whether mouse, human, dog, cat, or other creature. This makes it very easy for them to transmit the bacteria to the human or other host, even though it requires 24-48 hours. It is due to their tiny size that so many humans are becoming infected with this difficult to treat disease.
As a result of all of this, New York City has decided to do something about it. There is a pilot program going on, at present, near the pedestrian trails in Wolfe’s Pond Park, Fairview Park, and Conference House Park. The city is testing a relatively new product called the Tick Box Tick Control System. The boxes in these parks were labeled as the “Tick Tock Tick Control Program.” The boxes were deployed in Spring of 2019, and they are quite unobtrusive but noticeable to the observant hiker or trail walker. We spoke with David Whitman, the president of Tick Box Technology Corp, who manufactures the boxes, and provided them to the City of New York for their pilot program.
They are small rectangular boxes that are about the size of one of those humane mouse trapping boxes that some people use in their homes to catch and release mice. At first glance, and after reading the label, it seemed that the boxes would be used to trap and kill ticks. But this is not the case. Instead, these boxes are actually mouse and chipmunk attractants. Inside of the box, there is a little bit of bait that attracts mice and chipmunks.
When these animals enter the box, they are brushed on their fur with a long lasting insecticide called Fipronil. According to the manufacturer, this insecticide does not harm the rodents at all, but instantly kills any ticks that are attached to the animals’ fur, and continues to work to kill any ticks that might later attach themselves for several weeks. This is actually the same insecticide that is used on pets such as dogs and cats to treat and remove flea and tick infestations, however, the concentration is ten times lower in the boxes than what is normally used on household pets.
These tick bait boxes are installed twice throughout the season, and this is done by the professionals working in the Health Department of New York City. Due to the nature of the boxes, only trained pest control operators or professional health department personnel may install them. Since the larval phase of the ticks are generally hatched in the early spring, starting in April and May, the first set of boxes are installed at that time. Then those boxes are collected, and a new set is installed in the summer, in July and August. Each box has enough bait and enough insecticide to keep feeding and treating the target animal population of rodents for three months.
Through observation of rodents over many years, and with the help of scientific data and information, it is understood at this point that chipmunks and mice are very territorial animals. This is why the boxes are installed at distances that are approximately 30 feet from each other. In that 30 foot area will be one family of mice and perhaps one family of chipmunks. This family will visit the bait boxes regularly, but not every day.
As they visit the boxes, they will be brushed with the insecticide, and they will eat some of the food, as well as take some of it back to their nests. In general, the entire family will visit the bait box themselves, and eat and take some of the food back. As a result, that entire mouse or chipmunk family will be protected from ticks.
Not only will the insecticide kill any ticks that are living on them at that time, it will also protect them from ticks for about 42 days. The Firponil, once applied, will be absorbed into the trans-dermal layer of their skin, to continue protecting them from the bugs. Even once the bait in the box is exhausted, the rodents will continue to visit it regularly, as they are also creatures of habit, but they will soon find that their efforts are rewarded, when the bait boxes are changed, and thus become a food source once again.
Due to the nature of the chipmunk and mouse, these bait boxes are neither intended to become, nor do they become, the sole source of food for these animals. As a result, they tend to work in the intended fashion, being another source of food for them, that they will visit on a regular, but not daily, basis. This way, the insecticide gets reapplied a number of times, and they are protected from ticks, and the ticks they were initially carrying have been killed.
In addition, these boxes are child-proof, so that even though they do contain a small amount of a toxic ingredient, they are unlikely to harm children or anyone except the ticks that they are targeting. The boxes are made of sturdy plastic and are designed to last for a long time. When the boxes are installed, they are placed inside a galvanized metal housing, that is held in place on the ground by several stakes which are driven into the ground. As a result, they cannot be carried away by any animal (such as if the chipmunk decided he wanted a new toy in his house and tried to pick it up to take it away), and they will not be moved by storms, flooding, wind, rain, etc. The metal housing also protects them from machinery, such as lawn mowers if they are installed on private property, chewing by rodents or other animals, and from the elements.
According to the manufacturer, as well as the long-term safe use of Firpronil on household animals that has occurred for many years, this insecticide is not toxic to the animals to which it is applied. It is also non-toxic to any predators that these animals may unfortunately encounter, such as birds of prey, cats, foxes, wolves, snakes, and others.
The manufacturer’s website states that with the use of the tick control boxes, there will be an 88% reduction in tick population after the first year, followed by a 97% reduction in population after two years. The manufacturer’s brochure also states that the percentage of ticks carrying the disease is reduced from 25% of the tick population to only 7% after the first year. This is because of the interruption in the tick’s life cycle.
The larval phase is the first life phase of the tick, and the nymph phase is the second life phase of the tick, the population that is killed by the insecticide does not reach maturity. These two life phases of the tick primarily use the white-footed mouse and the chipmunk as their first blood-meal source. Since there are other animals that can carry the nymph tick who do not have the Lyme disease bacteria themselves as a carrier, this is likely why the Lyme disease carrying tick percentage is lowered so greatly. Most animals who become infected with Lyme disease in nature, however, show no symptoms. Even many domesticated animals, except for dogs, who become infected with Lyme don’t show any symptoms, though they may occasionally display lameness or stiffness in their limbs.
When you think about the tick, most people think of the adult life phase of the tick, which is easily seen, being about 2-2.5mm in length, depending on if they are male or female. However, the nymph phase of the tick is only the size of a poppy seed (less than 1mm in diameter), and the larval phase is even smaller than that, at only one half millimeter in diameter.
However, if a human or other animal were to be bitten by a tick that is in the larval phase, there would be much less danger of infection with Lyme disease. This is because in this phase of its life-cycle, the tick is not yet infected with Lyme disease. Only if the human already was infected, or if the larval phase attaches itself to an infected mouse or chipmunk, would this phase of tick be capable of transmitting infection. Once it has fed for the first time, though, it does not feed again until it enters the nymph phase, which is the size of a poppy seed.
Deer are another carrier and vector for Lyme disease, as they are the site where the ticks reproduce and multiply (mainly on their antlers and heads). There are other products that New York is presently testing in the upstate regions, as well as on Long Island, that would treat the deer who harbor tick populations as well. These products are bait feeding stations that apply a different pesticide to the heads, necks, and antlers of the deer to kill any ticks that are on them.
According to the New York State Department Of Health And Mental Hygiene, the deer population on Staten Island has grown from fewer than 20 deer to over 2,000 deer over the past 10 years. Since the deer are a haven for the ticks to multiply, the fewer of the ticks that are carrying the Lyme disease bacterium when they do reproduce, the fewer humans will be infected with the bacterium. This is the aim of the tick control system being presently piloted on Staten Island. However, the growing deer population has been pointed to as a reason for the exploding number of cases of Lyme disease infection on Staten Island and in other areas of New York.
Since 2006, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been monitoring the tick population on Staten Island, and this is their first effort at tick control. The boxes each cost $20, and the plan involves using 800 bait boxes per season, for a total of 2,400 total bait boxes. This represents an annual cost of $16,000, with a total cost during the trial of $48,000. If these bait boxes are as effective as the manufacturer claims on their website, this will be taxpayer money well spent.
When the bait boxes are deployed, at dedicated intervals, special cloths are used to gather up the ticks that are in the area of the bait boxes. These will then be analyzed for the presence of the Lyme bacterium. In December of 2021, the data will be collected from the trial program, including how many ticks were carrying the bacterium, and if the number decreases as the manufacturer has stated in their brochure. This will help them to determine if the trial program will be expanded into a full tick control program, with additional areas of Staten Island being covered by the boxes.
According to the CDC’s statistics, over 300,000 cases of Lyme Disease were reported in humans each year since 2013. Considering the difficulty in diagnosing and treating Lyme Disease, along with the symptoms which it causes, which can include damage to the victim’s joints and heart, it definitely makes sense to try to control its spread. It is hoped that this pilot program will be effective, and that it will be continued, as controlling the spread of Lyme Disease is an important and worthwhile goal, which will save the city and healthcare systems a great deal of money on treating a disease that is somewhat preventable with the proper precautions.
Staten Islanders, even those who do not hunt or hike, should familiarize themselves with the prevention techniques that have been recommended by the Department of Environmental Conservation, which can be found at their site Perhaps the most important advice on this fact sheet is to shower immediately upon returning indoors from outside, especially when hiking or hunting (including changing clothing, which should be washed as soon as possible), as well as applying repellant such as lemon eucalyptus oil, a natural alternative to chemical repellents that is shown to be effective.
Even residents who don’t hike or hunt, but spend time in their own backyards, are at risk of being bitten by ticks. Data from government agencies has shown that many people are bitten while on their own property, especially if there are deer or mice in the area. Repellents and showering immediately upon returning inside, along with the other advice on the provided link, may help reduce the risk of being bitten by ticks.
Residents can also see the data from these pilot programs, as it becomes available , on the Health Data website. A direct link to the collection data of nymph ticks can be found here, and the data regarding adult ticks can be found here. There is no data yet for Staten Island, as they have only just begun trying to control the tick population here, but you can gain an idea of the effectiveness of similar programs through looking at the data.
It is heartening that this very serious problem is finally being given the attention and treatment that it deserves. The manufacturer has provided the numbers above, of 88% and 97% reduction over time, based on field trials conducted by the CDC. If these boxes are as effective as they should be, the tick populations will quickly decline, and the cases of Lyme Disease reported to the CDC should decline with them.