Category Archives: Science

Misuse of antibiotics is encouraged by the word itself

One reason why there’s an Antibiotic Awareness Week every November is to alert people to the unfortunate outcome of antibiotic overuse: the evolution of strains of bacteria that are resistant to the drugs. I.e., when millions of people each year coerce their physicians to prescribe antibiotics for viral and fungal infections, bacteria that are present in their bodies (but that are not causing disease) can evolve to survive the drug. Then when others get sick from these mutant strains, they die. It is estimated that 35,000 people in the United States die every year from infections of drug-resistant bacteria. I believe the worldwide estimate is close to 700,000. Antibiotic misuse is a huge problem.

Most people think antibiotics can kill viruses and other germs

One goal of Antibiotic Awareness Week to inform people that antibiotics kill bacteria but not anything else. This is a major goal because, currently, people are very, very confused.

For example, a 2012 Pew study that found that 36% of Americans think antibiotics can treat viral infections:

Graph of American's understanding of the efficacy of antibiotics
Graph of American’s understanding of the efficacy of antibiotics. From Pew Health.

That was seven years ago — have all the Antibiotic Awareness Weeks since then succeeded in educating Americans about antibiotics? No. A 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 55% of participants thought viral infections can be cured with antibiotics:

As an aside, there’s a large gender difference, too, with 64% of men (vs 46% of women) believing that antibiotics can treat viral infections (graph below). And, not surprisingly, an education difference: 75% of adults who lack a high school education think antibiotics can treat viral infections (graph below).

Ignorance is not just for Americans, too. A 2010 publication reports that 53% of Europeans believe that viral illnesses can be treated with antibiotics (and 11% weren’t sure). In Malaysia, 67% believe that antibiotics treat viral infections (Oh et al. 2011). These numbers probably underestimate the problem, too, because some people (e.g., over 87% in Cameroon) also think that antibiotics work against all microbes, not just viruses.

Ignorance about what antibiotics kill can come in different flavors, and I therefore believe it’s important to understand why people are ignorant. Some people, for example, think that viruses are bacteria (perhaps 10%, per Carter et al. 2016). Other people might think that although antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria, they might have some smaller, beneficial effect in treating infections caused by viruses (this can actually be true). Both of these misconceptions can probably be addressed by yearly doses of Antibiotic Awareness Week pushed out by health organizations.

But there’s an unnamed contributor to the ignorance problem. The word “antibiotic” itself suggests it is active against more than bacteria. I.e., unlike “antifungal” (acts against fungi) and antiviral (active against viruses), “antibiotic” is vague — if anything, people assume the “biotic” part refers to a broad category of organisms. People make this assumption because “biology” is the study of all life, not the study of bacteria.

A decade of Antibiotic Awareness Weeks in multiple countries seems to have failed in changing the public’s understanding of whether antibiotics kill viruses (Mason et al. 2018). They are, arguably, a complete waste of money. I believe the failure is, in part, because Antibiotic Awareness Weeks do not confront the confusion caused by the word, “antibiotic.” I think it’s at least worth a try to explore how one might do this.

Antibiotic used to mean “substance that kills microorganisms”

Coined in 1860, antibiotic combines “anti” (kills) with “biotic” (something that’s alive) and, accordingly, was completely broad (“all life”). Over the decades, however, the word’s meaning eventually evolved to refer to just substances that killed microorganisms (still a rather general term). This meaning comes as a shock to most people so here’s a Webster’s Dictionary from 1913 that says an antibiotic “kills microorganisms.”

1913 definition of antibiotic
Definition of “antibiotic” in 1913 edition of Webster’s Dictionary.

It was only in 1943 that the word began to refer to substances that killed only bacteria, a usage that has now become firmly established among biologists, doctors, and health organizations. But, unfortunately, the old meaning still survives outside of academia and hospitals, in part because it still (and always will) sounds like a drug that might kill more than just bacteria.

Dictionaries say that antibiotics kill more than bacteria

It’s not just that it used to have a broader meaning. It still does, at least on the internet. Here are just several examples (there are thousands) of current dictionaries and websites defining as “antibiotics” as killing more than just bacteria:

  1. “a medicine (such as penicillin or its derivatives) that inhibits the growth of or destroys microorganisms.” — Oxford English Dictionary
  2. “a substance able to inhibit or kill microorganisms” — Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  3. “any of a large group of chemical substances, as penicillin or streptomycin, produced by various microorganisms and fungi, having the capacity in dilute solutions to inhibit the growth of or to destroy bacteria and other microorganisms, used chiefly in the treatment of infectious diseases.” — Dictionary.com
  4. “An antibiotic is defined as any chemical substance that is able to kill bacteria, fungi and parasites, and can thus be used against prokaryote and eukaryote organisms.” — DifferenceBetween.net

So it’s not at all surprising that most people think antibiotics are active against a wide range of microorganisms.

Even public health organizations misuse the word antibiotic

What shocks me is that the very organizations behind Antibiotic Resistance Awareness initiatives are often spreading confusion themselves. Below are several instances out of thousands.

  1. “Antibiotic resistance happens when germs like bacteria and fungi develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. That means the germs are not killed and continue to grow.” — About antimicrobial resistance (CDC)
  2. “Millions of people in the United States receive care that can be complicated by bacterial and fungal infections. Without antibiotics, we are not able to safely offer some life-saving medical advances.” — Antibiotic-resistant infections threaten modern medicine (CDC)
  3. Antibiotic-resistant germs can spread in the environment. Aspergillus fumigatus, a common mold, can make people with weak immune systems sick. In 2018, resistant A. fumigatus was reported in three patients.” — The interconnected threat of antibiotic resistance (CDC)
  4. “Antibiotic resistance is the ability of a micro-organism (such as bacteria) to stop an antibiotic from working effectively.” — What is antibiotic resistance? (NSQHS)

As an aside, for an issue that has such a clear relevance to people needlessly dying, failure to convey a crisp, error-free message about what antibiotics can and cannot do is a problem. I would strongly urge governments to recruit some actual biologists to proofread all materials on Antibiotic Awareness Week websites.

How to provide better antibiotic awareness outreach

I have five suggestions for improving current antibiotic-resistance awareness programs.

1. Clearly state that antibiotics are substances that kill just bacteria

If you are in charge of running an antibiotic awareness initiative, fully embrace the fact that the majority of the population doesn’t accept that antibiotics treat only bacteria. So give a definition of antibiotic rather than assume people understand. And embrace the unfortunate fact that the word itself confuses people and that many dictionaries support that confusion. I’m astonished that not a single awareness campaign addresses why the public might be confused.

2. Use the word “antibacterial”

An easy way to clarify what antibiotic means is to just put “antibacterial” in parentheses. You only need to do this once. E.g., “Antibiotics (antibacterials) are useful in treating some infections.”

3. Change name to “Antibacterial Awareness Week”

Perhaps the best way to avoid the confusion about antibiotics is to not bring up the word in the first place. Just call it, Antibacterial Awareness Week. An example of this approach is demonstrated by the Antibacterial Resistance Leadership Group — by choosing “antibacterial” the group instantly avoids all confusion about the focus of their group. I.e., if they had used Antibiotic Resistance Leadership Group, instead, people would likely assume the group was interested in all types of antimicrobial resistance.

For the same reason, physicians should opt for the word, “antibacterial” when discussing medications with patients. E.g., I suggest saying “You have a cold (a virus) so I don’t think you should take antibacterials instead of “You have a cold (a virus) so I don’t think you should take antibiotics.” The latter sentence leaves open the hope (in the mind of a typical patient) that antibiotics might also treat some viral infections. Using “antibacterial” is one more syllable than “antibiotic” but it could save doctors a lot of grief.

I’m not, of course, suggesting that academics and doctors need to ban the word entirely. “Antibiotic” can still be used in journals and in hallways. My suggestion above is how to communicate with the public. That said, some scientists do in fact already use “antibacterial resistance” in journals and lectures in order to avoid ambiguity, so the change would not be a shock to anyone.

4. Hold a “Antimicrobial Awareness Week” instead

I think one major reason why antibiotic-awareness programs often have errors is that organizers are, ultimately, trying to alert the public to the dangers of evolution of resistance in all types of microorganisms, not just bacteria. So I think it is better to just have an Antimicrobial Awareness Week, a time when all different types of resistance could be highlighted.

Types of anti-infective drugs.

On this note, I have found two organizations that have used “antimicrobial” in their awareness-week names: Misr International University, International Federation of Medical Students Associations. I will add others as I find them. The point is that for current organizers of Antibiotic Awareness Resistance Week, there are precedents for changing the name. And using search/replace can probably do the bulk of the change in just an afternoon.

5. Avoid the use of “germ”

For some reason, designers of antibiotic-awareness initiatives love to use the “germ” and “microbe” as a synonym for “bacteria.” That seems unwise given that both terms are broader categories.

Plea to pollsters

I would be grateful if somebody could explore whether participants’ responses change when “antibiotic” is replaced with “antibacterial” in a survey question.

For example, ask, “How effective are antibacterials for treating viral infections?” I hypothesize that a person is more likely to a give a correct answer when “antibacterial” is used. This might seem obvious (because the word gives away the answer), but there are many biologists and physicians who I’ve spoken to over the years who truly don’t see how the word “antibiotic” is flawed.

Given how many hundreds of thousands of people are killed yearly by antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, poll data like this might be sufficiently sobering to get people to reevaluate their love of the word, “antibiotic.” I.e., I think switching to “antibacterial” in outreach programs and in doctors’ offices would result in far less misuse of antibacterials and therefore a slowing of the evolution of resistance to such drugs. A simple search-and-replace action (antibioticantibacterial) would take mere seconds and potentially save lives. Given that current campaigns are ineffective, I think it’s worth a try.

Bag of water hanging from ceiling

15 mosquito-control strategies and devices that don’t work

Health officials love to remind people to use DEET and other CDC-approved repellents, but they tend to shy away from telling the public what doesn’t work. As a result, millions of people adopt ineffective techniques and gimmicky devices. These people are not only subjecting themselves to annoying mosquito bites, they are increasing the likelihood that family members will contract West Nile virus disease, Zika virus disease, eastern equine encephalitis, and other mosquito-borne diseases. So I thought I’d make a list of the top myths and scams just in case skeptical people are Googling.

1. Mosquito-repelling plants

Despite the claims of thousands of posts on Facebook and Pinterest, there are no plants that, when planted around your yard, repel mosquitoes. And, just to be clear, the plant marketed as “mosquito plant” does not repel mosquitoes. I know this is deeply upsetting news to many plant fans. I’m just the messenger.

2. Ultrasonic devices and apps

None of these have been found to work (details). It’s too bad. It would be really cool if they did. The FTC has taken some companies to court. There is, however, a device called The Mosquito that is effective at repelling teenagers.

3. Bags of water suspended from ceiling

This belief is common in Mexico, Central America, Spain, and certain pockets in the U.S. south. It’s a variation of the equally-ineffective tradition of hanging bags of water to repel house flies. Some people insist that you have to add coins (and just the right number).

4. Listerine

Nope — even when mixed with other ingredients like beer and epsom salts, spraying Listerine around your yard won’t repel mosquitoes. Just another internet rumor started by somebody with too much free time.

5. Citronella candles

Citronella candles only seem to work if you surround yourself with a lot of them, ideally in a protected area so that wind doesn’t dissipate the smoke. Similarly, Tiki torches that burn citronella-laced oil are ineffective. They smell great, though. The pleasant smell most likely contributes to the strong placebo effect. People absolutely believe they work even though they do not.

6. Bounce dryer sheets

Per one study fungus gnats (which don’t bite) were mildly repelled by dryer sheets. I’d wager these sheets might actually be attractive to mosquitoes (some species home in on perfumes).

7. Wrist bands with natural oils

At best, wrist bands will reduce the number of mosquito bites on your wrist. But they will not emit enough volatile compounds to shield the rest of you. NB: currently there are no wristbands that contain DEET or other CDC-approved repellent. Details.

8. Stickers laced with natural oils

Stickers only prevent mosquitoes from biting the flesh directly underneath the sticker. You’d need an awful lot of stickers for full protection. If you can rock that look, I say go for it. Note, same conclusion for the stickers that claim to infuse your bloodstream with B1.

9. Garlic

Eating garlic does not deter mosquitoes. Just other people.

10. Vitamin B1, B6, or B12 pills

Nope, nope, and nope. Details. More details.

11. Mozi-Q pills

Just another scam. Details.

12. Bug Zappers

These devices are adored by people because they make a satisfying crackle when an insect meets its end. Indeed, people who own these seem to delight in the attention these things get when friends come over in the evening. But if you dump all the carcasses on a table and sort them (good family fun), you’ll find that only a small fraction of the victims will be mosquitoes. In one study, 0.22% were mosquitoes. Mostly you’ve just electrocuted thousands of small, defenseless moths and night-active beetles. That’s a lot of bad karma. More details.

13. Dynatraps

These don’t appear to work. If you’re still on the fence read some of the many 1-star reviews on Amazon.

14. Spartan Mosquito Eradicators and Sock-It Skeeters

These are a commercial manifestations of the “DIY mosquito killer using soda bottle, yeast, and sugar” that has gone viral on Facebook and YouTube. Like the homemade version, these devices are really good at attracting and breeding fruit flies ( (they lay eggs!), but nothing else. They do not kill mosquitoes. Both devices are made by AC2T, Inc., a Mississippi company. More details.

15. Bats and birds

Sadly, it’s a myth that constructing a bat or bird hotel in your backyard will eliminate your mosquito problem. Bats and birds will certainly eat mosquitoes under some circumstances (e.g., when they are caged with nothing else) but under natural conditions they prefer to eat larger insects. You should still construct bird and bat houses, though. Details.

More information

If you have questions, email me.

Spartan Mosquito Eradicator (review)

Spartan Mosquito Eradicators are selling like hotcakes around the country so I bought two and thought I’d share some thoughts. The devices are just black tubes filled with water, sucrose, salt, and yeast that you hang in your yard. Per the company, mosquitoes are lured to the devices by the CO2 and heat produced by the yeast, crawl inside (through holes in the cap), drink the liquid, crawl back out, then eventually die when their guts rupture.

Spartan Mosquito Eradicator

How the device is supposed to work

The company’s premise is that because all of the statements below are true, its device is guaranteed to lure and kill mosquitoes.

  1. Mosquitoes are attracted by CO2.
  2. Mosquitoes are attracted to heat.
  3. Mosquitoes regularly ingest carbohydrates from decaying (fermenting) fruit and nectar, and several studies have shown that mosquitoes are attracted to artificial solutions of sucrose and yeast (Oli et al. 2005, Smallegange et al. 2010, Sukumaran et al. 2015, Dhanique et al. 2017).
  4. Mosquitoes can fly or crawl through holes to gain access to blood meals.
  5. Mosquitoes can be killed by sugar solutions that are laced with poisons (reviewed by Fiorenzano et al. 2017).

Did they work?

No. I didn’t notice a drop in the number of mosquitoes in my yard. My mosquitoes are largely Asian tiger mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus) and several Culex species. I spend a lot of time outside so I would be in a position to know whether there was a reduction in mosquitoes. The devices simply didn’t work.

Why didn’t they work?

In my opinion, there are four reasons why the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator is unlikely to kill a single mosquito unless it falls from the tree and lands on one.

First, I don’t think the concoction inside the device is attracting mosquitoes. If it were, I would expect to see mosquitoes congregating around the device. I didn’t see a single mosquito, ever. As for reasons why the fermenting liquid isn’t attractive, it might be because the yeast runs out of sucrose in less than ten days (probably just two), so it’s just not producing enough carbon dioxide to fool mosquitoes into thinking it’s a bird or mammal. I’d guess that even on day one there’s not enough CO2 produced by this device. Another reason it’s probably unattractive is that the tube smells like rotting insects after a few days, not a nice piece of fruit or nectar source — again, mosquitoes are probably not going to be fooled.

I find it revealing that the company doesn’t publish data on CO2 production of the devices. One of the owners, Chris Bonner, owns a carbon dioxide meter (he does testing for the EPA). If you are state pesticide regulator, this would be a simple test to run, even off season. Just don’t ask Bonner Analytical Labs to do it.

Second, the fermentation reactions inside the tube are not going to generate enough heat to make the device a thermal target for mosquitoes. Even if there was a mild temperature elevation on the first day (when there is plenty of sugar), that temperature increase will certainly not last for three months. Notably, the nowhere on the company’s website or marketing materials is there any documentation of a temperature increase. For a company that made $100 million in 2019, you’d think they could spring for a remote food thermometer. It’s just a lie. If you are state pesticide regulator, this would be a simple test to run, even off season.

Third, sodium chloride (table salt) is unlikely to be an effective poison. My pessimism is because adult mosquitoes have salt-sensitive taste receptors just like we do and thus are unlikely to drink a solution that is too salty. I was unable to find a single published article that suggests mosquitoes would drink salty sugar solutions. Similarly, I couldn’t find any literature that said mosquito guts would rupture when forced to imbibe sugar/salt/yeast solutions. Notably (yet again) Spartan Mosquito doesn’t cite a single article on its website or marketing materials in support of its claim. Indeed, when females take a blood meal they are, in effect, ingesting a high-sodium solution. They simply excrete the excess sodium in their urine.

Why, then, does the company use sodium chloride as the active ingredient, when even a quick internet search would reveal it is poor choice? It turns out that the company initially used boric acid as a poison. I’ve uncovered two types of evidence for this. One is that “orthoboric acid” (not sodium chloride) is listed in the patent application. Another is a a video of the inventor/co-owner (Jeremy Hirsch) describing the poison as “boron or borax” to the Hattiesburg (Mississippi) City Council in April 2017; he doesn’t mention a salt version. I think he first settled on borax (which is cheap and easy to find) because he likely read, sometime in 2015 or 2016, an article in the New York Times titled, “Brewing up double-edged delicacies for mosquitoes“. In one part of the article there’s a description of an experiment that used boric acid to control malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in Africa. I think this was the article because Mr Hirsch often mentions in interviews that he thought he could improve upon what the Gates Foundation was doing (described more fully in Müller et al. 2010).

My guess is that at some point Mr Hirsch was told by the EPA that he wouldn’t get approval for the borax version unless he had valid efficacy data. So he switched to sodium chloride, which made his device eligible for an exemption to FIFRA 25(b) regulations: this allowed him to sell it in almost every state without needing any efficacy data. I.e., the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator can be sold even if it doesn’t work. Plus salt is cheaper than boric acid so he could make a higher profit.

One curious part of the sodium chloride usage is how the company describes the mechanism of action: the mosquito gut “ruptures” in response to sharp crystals of sodium chloride. Even if you could fool a mosquito into ingesting a saline solution, this mode of action is improbable. Sodium chloride is ridiculously soluble in water so you’d need to have an extremely high concentration for salt to crystalize out of a solution. A 1% solution isn’t going to crystalize. I’m guessing the advertising was initially crafted to describe how boric acid kills insects and they decided to keep the wording because it sounds dramatic and, they found, many Americans found it convincing.

As an aside, just in case an EPA regulator chances upon this post, listing sodium chloride as the active ingredient is a violation of the 25(b) exemption granted to this device. I.e., the company has zero data showing that sodium chloride is killing mosquitos so salt cannot be listed as an active ingredient. Moreover, Spartan Mosquito admits that salt is not the active ingredient when it says that mosquito’s guts are ruptured by the yeast’s CO2 emissions. Here’s the Jeremy Hirsch’s own wording (see video): “When they go in and they consume the material basically the material with the yeast and the sugar is constantly producing CO2 and mosquitoes have no ability to expel excess gas.” Therefore, the company has misled the EPA as well as dozens of state regulators. I personally cannot understand how the Mississippi Bureau of Plant Industry ever allowed this sham of a product to be OK’d for sale in the first place. Truly a mystery.

Sodium chloride is the active ingredient.

Fourth, the holes in the cap are too small (5/32″) to allow mosquitoes to enter, at least with regard to mosquitoes in search of rotting fruit. There’s not a huge literature on what size holes mosquitoes can crawl through, but Dickerson et al. (2018) found that only 1 out of 100 female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes went through an 8-mm hole after 1 hour when presented with a host. Although a hungry female mosquito might squeeze itself through a small hole in search of a warm mammal (Bidlingmayer 1959), I doubt that they would do the same merely for some rotting fruit, especially if a yard is full of easier sources of sugars (they like flower nectar, e.g.).

Spartan Mosquito Eradicator cap with holes.

Here’s a video of the device in action (inside an aquarium filled with hundreds of mosquitoes). Below is a screen grab of the video:

A Spartan Mosquito Eradicator inside an aquarium with hundreds of dying mosquitoes.
Frame grab from a time-lapse video of mosquitoes dying inside an aquarium in which a Spartan Mosquito Eradicator was placed.

My guess is that not even a single mosquito in the video entered the device — they just died over the course of several days from starvation and desiccation. It would be nice to know whether the company filmed it exactly as above (with holes hidden) or whether the company cropped out the holes after filming. The company wouldn’t respond when I asked. But even if the company shows a mosquito or two entering, if there were hundreds present in the aquarium, that’s an indication that the device isn’t going to work outside. I.e., if a yard has, say, 10,000 mosquitoes, having a dozen or so visit the device is not going to kill enough to be noticeable. And, as mentioned above, it’s unlikely that those rare mosquitoes entering the device are actually drinking the fluid (that would have to be demonstrated with an experiment).

Why do people buy them?

People buy Spartan Mosquito Eradicators for the same reason that people bought snake oil — they believed the marketing. And people become repeat buyers for the same reason people kept going back for more and more bottles of snake oil — people convince themselves that the device actually worked when in fact they do not. In fact, many avid fans refer to themselves as “believers”, acknowledging that most other people figure out that mosquitoes are not killed by the devices.

It’s not just the truly gullible that become believers. Many people in the United States don’t realize that towns and counties spray insecticides regularly, which lowers mosquito populations to tolerable levels. Other people might just happen to have low mosquito counts in their yards for some other reason (e.g., very little rain prior to setting the devices out in yard). Both of these scenarios can lead a person to conclude, wrongly, that the devices they set up in a yard caused the low mosquito numbers. This is called an illusion of causality, a phenomenon that explains why people become believers in all sorts of strange things (dowsing rods, golf-ball finders, etc.). And then once a person decides the devices work, the power of confirmation bias will continue to reinforce that incorrect conclusion. At this point, no amount of evidence to the contrary is likely to change their belief. E.g., if a Believer in Spartan Mosquito Eradicator gets eaten alive by mosquitoes in her yard, she’ll concoct a reason that somehow removes the blame from the device.

Another category of believer is owners of stores that sell Spartan Mosquito Eradicators. These individuals get a percentage of sales so they are potentially biased, but in my experience speaking with them they seem 100% convinced that the claims on the package must be true (why would the company have mislead them!?). The proof, to them, is that people keep buying the devices (thousands, in some stores). My guess is that people who figure out that the devices are ineffective will just say to themselves, “Well, dang, I just wasted $19.95 but I’m not going to waste any time trying to return the darn thing. And I’m not going to bother the nice family at the store that sold it to me. They’ll just try to sell me a fresh box.”

As a side note, I find it bizarre that true believers keep buying replacement packs every 90 days. If these people are convinced the devices work they could save a lot of money by just refilling the tubes with fresh ingredients: 2 1/2 tbsp sugar, 1 tsp salt, 1/8 tsp yeast, 1.7 cups warm water. The company is concerned about this scenario and has the following warning: “Spartan Mosquito Eradicators cannot be reused or refilled. Imagine a glass of orange juice sitting on your porch for 3 months. We don’t want people pouring tubes out on the ground and having a house pet consume the materials” (italics added). This is inane.

Deceptive and illegal advertising

The big reason why so many people buy the devices in the first place is that they believe the marketing claims. Take, for example, the graph on the box that claims to show mosquito populations are all but eliminated in 90 days.

Graph of percentage mosquitoes eliminated over time by Spartan Mosquito Eradicators.
Graph of percentage mosquitoes eliminated over time. On its website this image is named, “Diagram-of-What_V3.jpg”.

A typical person is going to see this graph and assume that an actual experiment was done. Oddly, no details about this graph are ever given on the website or elsewhere. Who collected the data? Where was it done? When was it done? How was it done? I’ve talked to a lot of people about this graph and I think it shows the number of mosquitoes landing on the company owner’s arm on two different days during an event the company calls, “Case Study CSL4GOV-ZIKA”. Here’s a handout the company distributed (details below):

Spartan Mosquito Eradicator Case Study by Joseph Waits and MS State Etymologist
Photograph of handout describing a shady case study by Spartan Mosquito Eradicator staff.

The document says that a Lamar County official (Joseph Waits) and an etymologist [sic] from the Mississippi Department of Health conducted a study in late 2016. It is worded to imply that the Spartan Mosquito Eradicators deployed in the area eliminated 100% of mosquitoes and that the Mississippi State Department of Health participated and approved of the data. It turns out the reason the final mosquito count was zero was because the State of Mississippi completely nuked the neighborhood with insecticides (on multiple days). The word on the street is that MS Department of Health is was highly displeased about how the document above was worded (lawyers were deployed, in fact).

I’d also like to point out how the company ended the document: “To date, this is the most effective, longest-lasting Zika control response on record anywhere.” That’s a very bold claim. And is a violation of the 25(b) exemption granted to the device. I.e., Spartan Mosquito implies the product can protect against a human disease. The claim is also made online: “Purchase the Spartan Mosquito Bomb and fight the Zika virus!”

“Purchase the Spartan Mosquito Bomb and fight the Zika virus!”

The company makes bold efficacy claims, too. For example, it asserts that the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator is better at controlling mosquitoes than pyrethroid spray services, automatic pyrethroid foggers, bug zappers, citronella candles/torches, and DEET repellents.

Finally, the company claims its devices are chemical-free. That’s not true, of course, because all of the ingredients are chemicals (e.g., NaCl, H2O, C12H22O11). Claiming a 25(b)-exempt device is “chemical free” is also illegal. The government also frowns on using images of pregnant women, children, and pets to visually imply that a pesticide device is safe. Here’s an image on the box showing a pregnant woman, a child, and a pet:

Photograph on box showing pregnant woman and her family.

It’s not just the company that spreads false, unsubstantiated health claims. Its affiliates and distributors do, too. Here’s a typical post from the primary distributor, WDG Holdings, LLC.

Facebook post by WDG Holdings, LLC telling people buy Spartan Mosquito Eradicators to protect against eastern equine encephalitis.

The implication is that you should buy a Spartan Mosquito Eradicator to protect yourself and family from eastern equine encephalitis. It is illegal (under FIFRA guidelines) to claim such protection when there is no credible scientific backing. Yet this distributor’s Facebook posts are almost exclusively claims such as this. These posts help explain why so many customers (feed stores, hardware stores) of the distributor make identical claims.

Another example is a commercial by Hub City West Farm and Garden that was broadcast on Mississippi television in early 2019. It claims Spartan Mosquito Eradicators can protect your family and pets from mosquito-borne diseases. This claim, again, violates FIFRA requirements. And because the claim could result in people not protecting themselves with DEET, the claim is also morally wrong.

I am certain there are scientists out there who have tested these devices and found that they don’t work at all. E.g., it wouldn’t take long to see that mosquitoes aren’t particularly interested in going through the holes in the cap and that if they do they don’t drink the fluid inside. But anyone agreeing to test the devices for the company is prevented by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) from disclosing the results. Note to those scientists: you can break an NDA if you think the company is engaging in illegal activities (such as false advertising or lying to the EPA).

Distasteful advertising

In addition to misleading consumers, Spartan Mosquito also produced a video ad featuring a father hitting his kids. Astonishing.

Deceptive customer support

The company has a carefully-crafted return policy: “Lights On Distributors [the distributor] does not honor returns due to improper use” (italics mine), and you have to return the product within 30 days. Per hundreds of interactions with 1-star reviewers on Amazon, the company always blames the user. Specifically, Mr Hirsch et al. will insist that the user failed to (1) “deploy” the devices early enough, (2) buy enough units for the size of the property, (3) place them in right spots, (4) place them at the right height in trees, or (5) wait long enough for devices to start working their magic. In some cases, customer is guilty of all of the above. I fully understand that some types of devices (airplanes, e.g.) don’t work if instructions are not followed, but I’d argue that Spartan Mosquito Eradicators is not such a device. The insistence that directions weren’t followed seems like a scheme to prevent people from returning the product and to immunize the company against scam complaints. Here’s a typical response (from Spartan Mosquito’s Facebook page):

If a buyer persists in claiming the devices simply don’t work, the company will ask the customer to call a “Deployment Specialist”, somebody who will call up your street address on a Google satellite map and tell you where you should put the devices (after you buy more). Sometimes the representative (Mr Hirsch himself, perhaps) will even inform the customers that it is really hard to educate the common person on the complex task of deploying the devices, all while referring to the customer as, “Sir” and “Ma’am” (which conveys politeness and annoyance at the same time). These tactics are not just patronizing, they are dishonest. Also, having a stranger examine your property on Google maps is creepy, especially if the interaction is done under duress.

By the way, if you do end up speaking with a deployment specialist and want a visual, here are photographs of the owners, Jeremy Hirsch and Chris Bonner.

Effects on wildlife

Although Spartan Mosquito Eradicators don’t eradicate mosquitoes, they do seem effective at killing non-target arthropods that are attracted to sugar and yeast. Below are photographs and IDs of the some of victims I’ve found inside.

Not surprisingly, after several weeks the liquid inside becomes a bubbling, charnel pit. And some of the visitors clearly lay eggs before they die because you can find larvae writhing around (video below). Some of these larvae are spotted-winged Drosophila, a rather bad economic pest. If you live near an orchard or berry farm, you most definitely should find that alarming.

Spartan Mosquito Eradicators also attract a lot of insects that are too large to fit through the holes. Two examples are below. I’ve heard they attract squirrels, too, which could be attracted to the sugar but might also enjoy eating the dead insects (they give off a rather pungent odor).

Are “Sock-It Skeeters” any better?

Sock-It Skeeters are cheaper versions of the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator. The prototype is pictured below, followed by the version that is in stores now.

What can be done?

I didn’t just write this post to satisfy geeky people’s curiosity. I think this company should be stopped and its assets frozen so that a class-action lawsuit can return the money to swindled customers. Its products put people at risk of contracting mosquito-borne diseases, and this consequence will be especially horrifying if they are allowed to sell in countries where such diseases are orders of magnitude more common. So if you have made it this far in my long post, please consider helping me shut down Spartan Mosquito.

Updates

  • In November 2019, Indiana, issued a “stop-sell” order on Spartan Mosquito Eradicators, citing (1) false and misleading advertising claims made by the company, (2) health claims made by the company and its affiliates, and (3) complete absence of trustworthy efficacy data. The state joins Connecticut, Idaho, New Mexico, South Dakota, and D.C. as places where the device may not be legally sold.
  • Multiple states have informed me that they are conducting investigations into both the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator and the Sock-It Skeeter.
  • I’m not allowed to reveal details, but the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting two separate investigations into Spartan Mosquito. These investigations may make the various state investigations unnecessary.
  • There is also an investigator for a consumer advocacy organization looking into the matter. Hopefully this organization will hook up with the Federal Trade Commission and perhaps some state attorneys general, as it often does.
  • There’s an insect-focused professional society that is considering making a public statement about the devices (i.e., that there is no evidence that they work).
  • Both Amazon and Lowe’s are reevaluating whether to allow the sale of Spartan Mosquito Eradicators (currently, neither company sells the Sock-It Skeeter).

If I’ve missed anything, please drop me a line.