With Lyme On The Rise, N.H. Governor Asks EPA To Speed Approvals For New Tick Repellants

5:11 minutes


tick viewed from the bottom
Ixodes scapularis, a blacklegged tick known to spread Lyme disease in the Northeastern regions of the United States. Credit: Macroscopic Solutions/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. A version of this story, by Annie Ropeik, originally appeared on New Hampshire Public Radio.

New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu wants federal regulators to speed up approval of new tick repellants and other products that could help prevent Lyme Disease in the state.

Sununu wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency about the issue this week.

The EPA is currently reviewing insecticidal and repellant uses of substances like nootkatone, an essential oil found in grapefruit and Alaska cypress trees.

[After a research vessel runs into trouble in the Arctic Ocean, science gets put on hold—for now.]

The Centers for Disease Control says nootkatone is non-toxic and can easily kill ticks and mosquitoes in populations that resist products like DEET.

Two companies currently hold patents for insecticides or repellants that contain nootkatone. It’s also used as a fragrance and food additive.

In his letter, Sununu says he believes the EPA can and should approve those nootkatone-based products for public sale as a pesticide by next summer.

“I am asking the EPA to please act now and accelerate the review of nootkatone and any other products capable of helping us to reduce this dangerous onslaught of tick- and mosquit0-borne diseases that are crippling our communities and economies,” Sununu writes.

May to July is peak season for ticks in states like New Hampshire. Studies show ticks are spreading more Lyme disease in New Hampshire and the Northeast every year.

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Segment Guests

Annie Ropeik

Annie Ropeik is an environmental reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, New Hampshire.

Segment Transcript

SPEAKER 1: Now it’s time to check in on the state of science.

SPEAKER 2: This is [INAUDIBLE] for WWNO. Saint Louis Public Radio News.

SPEAKER 3: Iowa Public Radio News.

IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. Lyme disease can now be found in every state in the country, but the Northeast is still the hardest hit region with 95% of the cases of the tick borne disease coming from these 14 states in the Northeast. And last month, the governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, put out a letter to the EPA asking for accelerated approvals for new tick repellents.

Annie Ropeik is here to fill us in on that story. She’s an environmental reporter with New Hampshire Public Radio based out of Concord. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: You know, my doctor keeps telling me that Lyme disease is– he comes from Connecticut and he says Lyme disease is rampant in the Northeast. And it seems to spare them out.

ANNIE ROPEIK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s interesting. We’re getting warmer faster here than a lot of parts of the country. We’re losing our snow in the winter faster. And all of that really creates a great environment for ticks to breed. We’re also heavily forested up here and we’re using our land in different ways. So the less we farm, the more we kind of move into the woods and subdivide those forests in parcels, the more we’re just really kind of encouraging the ticks to spread.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and so governor Sununu mentioned a specific type of repellent called Nukatone. Is that right? Tell us about it.

ANNIE ROPEIK: That’s right. Yeah, so this is an essential oil that’s found in grapefruit. It’s literally, like, the smell that you get– sort of citrus herbal smell that you get from a grapefruit. It’s also found in Alaska cypress trees.

So it’s a naturally occurring product and it’s already approved for food and fragrance use by the Food and Drug Administration. So it’s deemed safe for people really to come in contact with you. Come in contact with it every time you peel a grapefruit. So it is also shown to be really effective at repelling or even killing ticks and mosquitoes.

There’s these crazy videos of CDC experiments where they cover their hands and stick it in a container with ticks. And they move away from it and then they die. So it could be really promising is an alternative to more sort of heavy duty things like DEET.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s heavy duty. So it has been approved by the CDC, but not the EPA yet. Is that right?

ANNIE ROPEIK: Yeah, that’s right. So you’re not allowed to sort of double market products like that. So the EPA would have to say that it’s safe for use as an active ingredient in pesticides and things like that. And that’s what they’re working on right now.

IRA FLATOW: You know, you would think that the companies that sell the bottle this stuff would be waiting in line to put this in your drugstore.

ANNIE ROPEIK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, right now they can sort of off market sell it to you as a repellent, but it is more of sort of like an alternative remedy at this point. It’s not really officially sanctioned. And so the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, is actually who owns the patent. And they license it to a few companies for different processes for deriving it from grapefruits and ways to get it more cheaply.

So if the EPA approves it as an active ingredient, then anybody could get it in however they see fit and market it in all kinds of different products. And people like our governor really see that as a sort of silver bullet potentially for the spread of ticks here. Although, it kind of remains to be seen how big of a factor it could be in helping slow the spread of diseases like Lyme.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you talked to some of the manufacturers about this?

ANNIE ROPEIK: Yeah, that’s right. And they say they talk to Lyme victims and advocates all the time who say, why isn’t this happening faster? And when can we expect to see this? But at the same time, you could cover yourself in the stuff and go out in the woods in shorts and you might still get bitten by a tick.

So prevention is still really important. People need to still be aware that they’ve got to check themselves for these things. Gotta be careful with their dogs. And it definitely isn’t a panacea, but it could certainly help maybe make people more willing to use it than they are to use products like DEET. So that would be a big change.

IRA FLATOW: I can see some of our listeners going to their blenders with their grapefruit now trying to [INAUDIBLE].

ANNIE ROPEIK: Give it a shot.

IRA FLATOW: Give it a shot. Yeah, grapefruit oil. How does the development of these new products fit in with the total state management plan in New Hampshire?

ANNIE ROPEIK: Yes, so it is just one piece. I think that our governor is not alone in having gone for this as sort of maybe a shortcut to trying to prevent diseases like Lyme. But it is only one piece of the puzzle. There is research that suggests that lowering the white tail deer population could help cut or tick populations or spraying this more in forested areas, or just doing more public education to teach people to wear long sleeves when they go hiking, and that kind of thing.

And so it’s a multi-pronged issue. And Lyme and ticks are certainly ingrained here already. So that’s not going away anytime soon.

IRA FLATOW: I hear you. I don’t live far away. Thanks Annie.

ANNIE ROPEIK: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Annie Ropeik is an environmental reporter with New Hampshire Public Radio based out of Concord. And you can read her story on our website at sciencefriday.com slash tics. And we want to shout to our New Hampshire listeners. It’s great to have you back. Back on New Hampshire Public Radio NHPR.

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