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On the front line to battle tick-borne illnesses

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Highway Department employee Nick Ryan loading corn into a 4-poster unit last week.
AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Highway Department employee Nick Ryan loading corn into a 4-poster unit last week.

Nick Ryan put the Chevy truck in gear outside the Highway Department barn last week, loaded with 4,500 pounds of bagged corn kernels.

The truck had clearly been through the wars of last winter and was showing its age as it bumped out though the gates of the Recycling Center and hung a left on North Menantic Road. It was riding a little smoother than usual, Mr. Ryan said, with the ballast of the 90 bags of corn weighing 50 pounds each in the bed.

It was another sure sign of spring on Shelter Island that Mr. Ryan was setting out to deploy the corn and the tick-killing insecticide, permethrin, for 4-poster units. A 15-year veteran of the Highway Department, he’s been in charge of the anti-tick program for the past three years.

A few days before, he had taken 31 of the green, hard-plastic feeding stations from winter storage at the Recycling Center and deployed them around the Island on town and private properties. The night before he had saturated what look like paintbrush rollers with a solution made up of 10 percent permethrin and 90 percent mineral oil. He placed the rollers in plastic bags to put on the four short posts of the units.

“Slippery stuff,” Mr. Ryan said about the solution, which he never works with without wearing plastic gloves, a supply of which he keeps in the truck.

Since mineral oil is easily absorbed, Mr. Ryan said he “takes care of my skin,” never allowing it to get too dry and ready to soak up the permethrin solution.

Certified by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in pesticides, he takes courses at Stony Brook University, as required, to stay current in the field.

“The DEC doesn’t make it easy,” he said about certification procedures. “Rightfully so.”

Driving up a dirt road to his first station of his day, Mr. Ryan noted that even though the target is killing ticks, deer are the creatures that are catered to, baited with the corn and then, when they dip their heads to feed, brush their necks against the posts holding the rollers wet with insecticide.

Permethrin is deadly for ticks, which carry Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, but according to the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection testing, for humans, “risks from permethrin were below the agency’s level of concern.”

Human health worries about the chemical seeping into ground water — and Mr. Ryan has seen cases where the feeding units have been knocked over and the rollers touching the ground — are unfounded, according to Dr. Ilia Rochlin, a laboratory director and an entomologist with the Suffolk County Department of Public Works Vector Control.

Dr. Rochlin noted that permethrin is “highly hydrophobic, meaning it has very low water solubility. When it gets in the soil, it attaches to the soil particles and doesn’t move much until degradation. Since there is very little to no leaching of permethrin from soil, the risk of it contaminating the groundwater is very low.”

Mr. Ryan drove the truck onto a dirt road through gray woods with just a hint of green at the ends of branches. He hoisted a 50-pound bag of corn on a shoulder and walked 40 yards along a trail to a clearing where a 4-poster stood, removed the top and poured in the corn.

He made five trips with the 50-pound bags, filling the unit. The corn is triple-washed, he said, to remove any material that might clog up the funnel that fills the small feeding trays at the base of the unit. If there’s no corn in the trays, raccoons and squirrels will gnaw their way through the hard plastic to get at the corn.

He then took the rollers out of the plastic bags and set them on the posts.

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Placing the permethrin-soaked rollers onto the feeding stand.
AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Placing the permethrin-soaked rollers onto the feeding stand.

Mr. Ryan will be out all spring and summer to restock the units and keep the permethrin soaked on the rollers, on the front line to help reduce illnesses that many have called a public health crisis here and throughout the Northeast.