Entomologist John Jackson: “Bugs and Weeds Away–the Natural Way”

On May 29, John Jackson (BA in biology, MA in zoology, PhD in entomology) spoke on having a weed-free sidewalk and neutralizing mosquito breeding spots without using harmful chemicals. His talk at Iron Works Church in West Chester was sponsored by Don’t Spray Me! / Sierra Club and the South West Association of Neighbors (SWAN).

Here are some highlights of his talk and the subsequent discussion (with some resorting of topics):

1) Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are the best-known insects in the world, because of their role in spreading diseases, especially malaria, yellow fever, and dengue. But the ways chemical tools have been overused against them are not in the interest of either people or wildlife. Chemicals may be needed to prevent massive epidemics, especially in the tropics, but when overused become ineffective because insects develop resistance.

There are lots of biting flies beyond mosquitoes. Here, the predominantly evening-biting Culex mosquitoes can carry West Nile Virus but day-biting Aedes (including Asian Tiger, which has been in the US only since 1985) almost never do. People should not view all insects (of which most don’t bite) as enemies.

Culex, the “house mosquito,” overwinters as adults in sheds, porches, tree hollows, and other sheltered areas. The adult mosquitoes we see in May have overwintered; they may have not yet had time to reproduce. Culex mosquitoes love urban environments, where they lay eggs in water where larvae feed on bacteria and organic matter.

West Nile Virus, which came to the US in 1999, depends on birds as a reservoir (unlike Zika, whose reservoir is people, making it easier to contain, as recently in Miami). Some birds, which in the past were often dying of WNV, appear now to be developing immunity. Fortunately, WNV is not transmitted through mosquito eggs, only from a bitten bird to another bitten bird or human. Known human WNV cases have been rare in PA.

Effective non-chemical defenses include tight-fitting screens, fans on ceilings or porches, repellents (notably lemon eucalyptus oil, picaridin, or citronella oil), various odoriferous granules spread in gardens or lawns.

Fogging with pesticides is a bad idea, because it kills many species, including mosquito predators like spiders; drift cannot be controlled; and it kills only adult mosquitoes, whereas many more larvae are just waiting to hatch every day and take over the air space.

The absolutely most important thing is to eliminate standing water, including where we might not think of it: in plastic bottles, the folds of tarps, in the fixed bottoms under some potted plants, even vases in cemeteries.

From mosquito egg to adult probably takes 10-15 days when weather is hot and damp, but 25-30 days with temperatures in the 70’s.

The bacteria-based larvcide Bti is very effective at killing mosquito larvae. The biscuits and granules have slower release than liquid and powder form. The hormonal Methoprene is also not toxic and prevents the metamorphosis to adult.

One of the worst sampling stations is in SE West Chester; it is not clear if that is related to Goose Creek. Trash in suburban streams creates mosquito habitat. And water can stand in old storm sewer lines like the Borough’s.

2) Weeds

Some undesired plants, like dandelions and poison ivy, are best dug up. Weeds are tough, but weakening them by cutting off the leaves a few times makes them more vulnerable to other treatments.

Old-school boiling water works really well; be careful, wear boots and goggles! Ditto butane flame torches. Or: a weak acid breaks down cell walls; vinegar works, but changes the soil chemistry.

He prefers to use 1 cup of borax (another kind of salt) in 1 gallon of warm water to kill weeds. The borax concentration can be doubled if needed. It also, for better or worse, it also kills ants, moss, lichen, and liverwort. Two applications a summer usually suffice, preferably in hot dry weather, since rain washes the borax away.

Regular table salt also kills plants; witness the die-off this past winter along roads and alleys in the Borough, which uses salt and brine to melt snow and ice. Municipalities tend to use twice as much salt as 20 years ago, even though less harmful substances are available. As a result, streams have increased chloride levels; he measured half the salt content of seawater in one stream.


excess salt, edge of alley, West Chester, 12/20/17

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It’s not just pesticides and motor vehicles

Unfortunately, we are exposed to potentially harmful chemicals almost anywhere. The tension between regulation in the public interest and corporate sales plays out even in our homes.

See “Volatile chemical products emerging as largest petrochemical source of urban organic emissions” by Brian C. McDonald et al., Science, 16 Feb 2018: Vol. 359, Issue 6377, pp. 760-764.

According to the summary:

Air pollution evolution

Transport-derived emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have decreased owing to stricter controls on air pollution. This means that the relative importance of chemicals in pesticides, coatings, printing inks, adhesives, cleaning agents, and personal care products has increased. McDonald et al. show that these volatile chemical products now contribute fully one-half of emitted VOCs in 33 industrialized cities (see the Perspective by Lewis). Thus, the focus of efforts to mitigate ozone formation and toxic chemical burdens need to be adjusted.

When we talk to people about defending the environment, we need to mention that human well-being is inextricably related to environmental health. As the article’s very first sentence notes, “Exposure to air pollution is the fifth ranking human health risk factor globally, following malnutrition, dietary risks, high blood pressure, and tobacco.”

On that scale, details seem small, but perhaps it is time to pay attention to those warnings one reads about harmful chemicals in things like printed receipts, styrofoam cups, and cleaning sprays.

Read and download the full article here. Read more comment, see “Wall Paint, Perfumes and Cleaning Agents Are Polluting Our Air” by Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR, February 15, 2018.

The Politics of Infertility and Cancer

This article by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post, 11/28/2017, is pretty shocking even by today’s standards. Some highlights:

Watch out for the Independent Women’s Forum, which despite its name is a front for right-wing causes supported by the Koch Brothers.

“Women can also benefit by ignoring “alarmist” concerns about toxic chemicals, according to an IWF lecture series sponsored by Monsanto.

“Moms who insist on organic food are arrogant, snobby “helicopter parents” who “need to be in control of everything when it comes to their kids, even the way food is grown and treated,” according to Julie Gunlock, director of IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism” project…”

One study cited shows that: “Glyphosate is a clear case of ‘regulatory capture’ by a corporation acting in its own financial interest while serious questions about public health remain in limbo. The record suggests that in 44 years—through eight presidential administrations—EPA management has never attempted to correct the problem. Indeed, the pesticide industry touts its forward-looking, modern technologies as it strives to keep its own research in the closet, and relies on questionable assumptions and outdated methods in regulatory toxicology.”

“The $800 billion chemical industry lavishes money on politicians and lobbies its way out of effective regulation. This has always been a problem, but now the Trump administration has gone so far as to choose chemical industry lobbyists to oversee environmental protections,” according to Nicholas Kristof.

The article presents many more examples of chemical industry malfeasance often covered up by its propaganda arms, sometimes with government collusion, but fortunately revealed by dedicated journalists and researchers.

The bottom line is no surprise: we must exercise constant vigilance and remain informed observers to protect ourselves and others.

Constant vigilance needed against dangerous chemicals

Who would sell products that could harm us? And safety regulations protect us, right? Answers: 1) People who want to make money and 2) Not as much as we might think.

Can someone sell you a recycled product that could blow up and kill you or contaminate you with toxins? Sure. Read “Empty industrial barrels bought on Craigslist present deadly dangers” by Rick Barrett at Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 12/13/17.

Gasoline, other flammable chemicals, insecticides, and other toxins lurk in some used metal drums that can be bought online. At least 69 Americans have died from making such purchases in the past 15 years, according to the article.

Some of those dangerous chemicals are also lurking on the shelves of your local hardware store or maybe even in your own basement.

Read the labels, err on the side of caution, and don’t rely on someone else to warn you adequately or protect you and your family from harm.

New Year’s resolution: avoid dangerous chemicals!

Michael Dourson: A Toxic Choice for Our Health and Safety

by Genna Reed, science and policy analyst, Center for Science and Democracy, at Union of Concerned Scientists, October 19, 2017

Update (December 14, 2017): Michael Dourson has withdrawn his nomination to head the EPA’s division of chemical safety. Read the statement from UCS President Ken Kimmell, Dourson’s Withdrawal a Victory for Science, Health.

When it comes to conflicts of interest, few nominations can top that of Michael Dourson to lead the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Time after time, Dourson has worked for industries and against the public interest, actively downplaying the risks of a series of chemicals and pushing for less stringent policies that threaten our safety.

In short, Dourson pushes counterfeit science, is unfit to protect us from dangerous chemicals, and is a toxic choice for our health and safety….

read more at at Union of Concerned Scientists to see how lucky we are not to have this chemical industry apologist in charge of regulating that very industry!