Inside Out: Tick, tack, toe

What happens now that the DEC has posted a final report on Shelter Island’s five-year study of the 4-Poster? I hope the state adopts regulations that allow 4-Posters to be deployed in any community in New York, public or private, that wants to reduce tick populations.

I wonder if it can happen. I remember how obstinately the DEC resisted the rising public call for Shelter Island’s 4-Poster experiment until two governors intervened — our own Hugh Carey and then-Governor George Pataki.

No, no, no — and for that matter never — were the answers from Albany for years. The reason? Permethrin, the insecticide with which the 4-Poster coats the heads and necks of deer as they feed, is not legally labeled for such use. And baiting deer is illegal, not only as a verboten hunting technique but because it might help the spread of chronic wasting disease. It’s not proven, but the idea is that deer in close contact, feeding at a 4-Poster, might get more cozy than they normally do.

There was overwhelming evidence from the USDA, for which the 4-Poster was developed, that the devices were highly effective in killing most of the tick population in the vicinity. Deploy them across hotspots like Shelter Island and North Haven, with their captive deer herds, and you might be able to reduce the incidence of Lyme disease, erlichiosis, babesiosis and other debilitating illnesses.

Just how big a threat those diseases are to public health remains a subject of debate and sketchy data. As bad as they  can be, all of them “resolve” or go away without treatment, according to my doctor, who’s been treating cases on the South Fork for more than 30 years. Treated quickly and aggressively, their worst symptoms abate within a few days.

So what’s the big deal? Why should the DEC have ignored its own rules to allow the experiment?

I know there are people who think Lyme and the other diseases are a myth, something that nutty hypochondriacs and other nervous left-leaning types wail about to promote their big-budget, big-government agendas. I don’t think they’re myths. I had all three diseases at once about seven years ago. It was nasty. Never mind the details, but getting to work, much less getting off the couch or out of bed, was impossible for days.

In June, I worked through a new bout with Lyme. It was almost routine. What shook me up this time was a weepy left eye that kept going in and out of focus. Then came facial weakness on the left side, which I only noticed when my wrap from Greeny’s kept getting wadded up inside my left cheek. Whatever muscle action keeps food from piling up on one side wasn’t happening. And duh. The left eye was all teary and blurry because it couldn’t blink. It was drying out.

I knew about Bell’s palsy but as a Lyme disease trooper I did not consider myself the strange, frail, weird, anxious type who’d be mostly likely to get facial paralysis from a tick bite. Well, whatever its actual characteristics may be, I’ve joined the crowd. (Another round of doxycycline and the steroid prednisone, which made my heart pound and my mood hyper, seemed to clear it up pretty fast, to my doctor’s surprise: he worried I might have had a stroke or a tumor and ordered a CAT scan, which ruled that out.

So I have a bias when it comes to this story. I believe in the nuisance, if not menace, of tick-borne diseases. I believe they can be costly in terms of time, money, productivity and, of course, physical and emotional health.

With so little risk to a 4-Poster test — I mean, come on; homeowners have been blowing permethrin all over themselves, their pets and their yards for years; how were the 4-Poster’s focused doses going to increase the existing environmental threat — I couldn’t believe how stubborn the DEC was back in 2005 and 2006, when a growing group of Islanders and eventually public officials, too, were calling for a study here.

My theory, which is just a guess: DEC officials in Albany are closely tied to the hunting lobby. They collaborate with hunters, the way the FAA works with the airlines. It’s the way it has to be, given limited staffing, funding and expertise, and it’s not all bad. But it creates a bias and an inertia when a little new thinking and open-mindedness might be called for.

Our local DEC official in Stony Brook couldn’t say yes. The word had to come down from Albany. Until Hugh Carey wrote Governor Pataki and got him aboard, and Governor Pataki did whatever he had to do to wake up those people, nothing was going to happen.

Now it’s all history. The DEC relented, the local DEC jumped in with both feet, and a major study was conducted under the management of Cornell and its Cooperative Extension. The earlier data showing the 4-Poster’s effectiveness have been confirmed. A very complex report is available online for all to see.

My worry now is that’s it. It’s all over. The DEC, without the kind of kick in the pants that Governor Pataki gave it, is going to doze off again.

There will be some meetings and discussions and memos and, as time passes, oh well, that old inertia will set in and we’ll be back to square one. The state’s budget crisis and ideological push to kill government services and programs will only exacerbate the tendency toward inertia.

Will it be as if our Shelter Island experiment never happened? Will the 4-Poster remain taboo in New York State? The DEC in Stony Brook says it’s reviewing the data with the state Health Department in order “to make fully-informed decisions with regard to the role this technology may play in reducing tick populations and the human incidence of tick-borne diseases.”

That sounds so reasonable. But how seriously will the DEC folks in Albany take it? They weren’t invested in this. The governor ordered it over their heads. In a couple of years, I can imagine requests coming in for permission to deploy 4-Posters. And I can imagine the same no, no, no and for that matter never.

Why would the DEC still say no, after all the time, money and effort that went into the 4-Poster study? Well, as the DEC said five years ago:  the hunters are worried, permethrin isn’t labeled for that use, and baiting deer might spread chronic wasting disease.