Though not oblivious to the dangers of using insecticides made for animals on their clothes and skin to ward off pesky ticks, farmers say they have no choice as they cannot afford the more expensive alternative — insect repellent.
Some farmers are known to use insect killer spray, the animal insecticide supermethrin — commonly called ticks wash in Jamaica — and gas (diesel) oil, which are harmful to them as they are slowly poisoning themselves over time with these harsh chemicals not made for human use.
According to 63-year-old farmer Donovan Tyrell who rears cows and goats on his farm in Portland, while he is aware that supermethrin is not made for humans, this is the main substance he has been using to deal with ticks for the past 15 years.
“We use the supermethrin that we use wash cow and we use the [insect killer] to spray on our clothes [as well]. We know seh it nuh good, but we nuh have no choice,” he told the Jamaica Observer.
The bright yellow label on the supremethrin bottle clearly states that it is an insecticide. An active ingredient in supermethrin is cypermethrin which is a synthetic pyrethroid insecticide.
Pyrethroids are chemicals that are toxic to the nervous system. Symptoms of pyrethroid poisoning include tremors, salivation, headache, fatigue, vomiting, stinging and itching skin, and involuntary twitching. Many pyrethroids also cause long-term health problems such as genetic damage and reproductive harm.
Tyrell insisted that he and other farmers cannot afford insect repellent, stressing that it is very expensive. He said they could not possibly budget for this as they would need to use it every day when they go into the field and one bottle would not last very long. A bottle of ticks wash, on the other hand, can be diluted to make several spray bottles of solution that can last for up to a month.
He further argued that despite this poisonous substance not being the safest option, the flip side is that farmers have to contend with ticks, “and we have to get rid of it”, using their own affordable substances. He insisted, however, that “we don’t use that much,” noting that he doesn’t believe much harm is done to his health as it is used lightly.
Tyrell said he would love if there could be cheaper options for insect repellent, while claiming that he has even been seeing a shortage of insect repellent in stores where he is located.
According to terrestrial biologist Damion Whyte, Jamaica is now in the ticks season due to the dry conditions now impacting country. This, he said, poses a challenge, especially for people who rear cattle, goat and own donkeys.
“In Jamaica, we call the young ticks grass lice. Now a number of the farmers are going to their farms near cows, so there is a strong chance of them getting infected with ticks. A bite from these ticks sometimes cause scratching, and bumps; some people are allergic, so their lymph nodes will swell up. Some people, if it is not treated, their feet will swell and they have to go to the hospital [to seek treatment],” he said.
Whyte noted that to rid themselves of this nuisance, a number of farmers use the ticks wash which is made for animals and not for use on humans or on crops, but is the cheaper option costing about $350 for a 240ml bottle. Farmers find this to be much more affordable than branded insect repellents which cost between $1,500 and $3,000.
“They mix the pesticide that they buy at the farm store and they are not doing any measurements on how much to use. It depends on how somebody mixes it. If it is mixed too strong, it might burn their skin, cause it to strip; some people might have an allergic reaction,” he said, adding that if the mixture isn’t the right consistency it will also burn the animals as well.
The biologist, who said he has witnessed farmers using this method in the field, said he is very concerned about the long-term impact of the use of these substances on farmers’ health.
“They don’t seem to know the implications of using such an insecticide… I see it as a problem. They are using the ticks wash as the norm and it should not be used as the norm because it is a harsh chemical,” he said.
He further pointed out that with climate change, there is going to be longer dry seasons; and a lot more infestation of ticks so a solution has to be found. He suggested that the Government could intervene in coming up with an insecticide that is affordable or offer a subsidy.
“This is an impact of climate change; the place is getting drier, the longer the dry season, the longer the ticks season, the longer the ticks season the more they [farmers] are using these chemicals,” he said.
According to the Californians for Pesticide Reform’s (CPR) website, pesticides in general can cause short-term (acute) adverse health effects in humans, as well as chronic adverse effects that can occur months or years after exposure. Examples of acute health effects include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, blindness, nausea, dizziness, diarrhoea and death. Examples of known chronic effects are cancers, birth defects, reproductive harm, immunotoxicity, neurological and developmental toxicity, and disruption of the endocrine system.
The CPR also noted that farm workers and pesticide applicators are more vulnerable to pesticide impacts because they receive greater exposures.
In the meantime, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Pearnel Charles Jr told the Observer that his ministry could only recommend that farmers use products that have been approved that would ensure their health is protected.
“We know that there are practices that have been utilised over time but if there are particular cases of concern we will evaluate those cases. We will speak to the Ministry of Health [and Wellness], work with the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) parish offices and see how best to advise the farmers of the guidelines of how to use whether it is repellent or natural products to use to protect themselves,” he said.
“We would not endorse use of any solution or product that is being manipulated to protect them, unless it has been approved or unless we can establish that it will have no detrimental impact on their health,” he added.
In response to the call for a cheaper alternative for insect repellent by farmers, Charles said the ministry along with RADA would have to do an assessment of what is taking place and to look at the individual cases.
“We cannot speculate on the matter. These kinds of matters require actual evaluation and examination to see exactly what’s taking place and then we can determine the next steps whether it is providing a guideline as to how to use a particular product to guard against the pests, or whether it is to step in and provide support, but it starts with examination,” he said.
US-based educational organisation Penn State Extension recommends several things farmers can do to protect themselves from ticks on their farm. Firstly, it advised that farmers need to be aware of when ticks become active, which is usually when the temperature reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit or above.
Penn State Extension noted that since it is not always possible for farmers to avoid the areas that are tick habitat, which are taller, brushy vegetation and where there is shade and cover, it advised that farmers check themselves for ticks while working in tick habitat.