This post is a review of the Spartan Mosquito Pro Tech, a tube containing sugar, yeast, and boric acid that you fill with warm water and then hang in your yard from trees. The manufacturer says it “kills mosquitoes that may carry West Nile Virus, Zika Virus, Dengue Fever, St. Louis encephalitis, Western equine encephalitis, and Eastern equine encephalitis for up to 30 days”. Each box of two tubes costs approximately $25. It is different from the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator, which lists salt as the active ingredient.
How the device is supposed to kill mosquitoes
Once you add water, directions say to hang tubes at a density of four per acre around the perimeter of your property, away from where people gather. The cap has a series of small holes (approximately 5/32″) that are supposed to accommodate mosquitoes.
Below is the sequence of events that are supposed to happen.
- mosquitoes are attracted to the tubes
- mosquitoes land on the tubes
- mosquitoes crawl around until they find the holes in the cap
- mosquitoes squeeze though the holes
- mosquitoes walk down sides of tube toward liquid
- mosquitoes ingest some of the liquid (which contains boric acid)
- mosquitoes walk back up sides of tube
- mosquitoes find holes
- mosquitoes squeeze through holes
- mosquitoes fly away
- mosquitoes die from boric acid ingested in step 6
Does it work?
No. I tested four in my yard in Pennsylvania and there was no noticeable drop in the numbers of mosquitoes biting me. I also looked inside all of the tubes and didn’t see a single mosquito. And I never observed a single mosquito near any of the tubes, despite a phrase on the package that says, “mosquitoes will gather” around them.
In addition to the above observations I used a home security camera to spy on one tube continuously for over a week, to see whether mosquitoes might be showing up when I’m not watching (e.g., at night). Here are the details of what I did (photographs of setup are below). The camera didn’t record the presence of a single mosquito. I concluded that the Spartan Mosquito Pro Tech is not capable of killing mosquitoes outdoors because mosquitoes are not even attracted to it. I.e., it fails at step 1, above.
Why doesn’t the Pro Tech attract mosquitoes?
Based on what the inventors have said publicly, the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast fools the mosquitoes into believing there’s an animal inside the tube.
I think this scenario is implausible. Although it is certainly true that mosquitoes use carbon dioxide to find hosts, I doubt the yeast is making enough carbon dioxide to attract mosquitos. And certainly not for an entire month. Indeed, I find the company’s explanation so implausible I cannot bring myself to think they believe it themselves.
How did the Pro Tech get an EPA registration?
Because the Spartan Mosquito Pro Tech has an EPA registration number (93813-1), the company must have submitted data showing the device can kill mosquitoes. But if the device doesn’t attract mosquitoes, how is this possible?
One explanation might be that Spartan Mosquito supplied data from experiments using caged mosquitoes. I learned about this option after asking the EPA whether Spartan Mosquito’s data were truly from outdoor experiments — the EPA answered by referring me to a web page that contained this line: “When appropriate, laboratory colony or caged wild mosquitoes can be used.” I also noticed that Spartan Mosquito stated on its Facebook page that field trial (outdoor) data are not required to secure an EPA registration:
Therefore, it seems likely that the EPA granted a registration on cage data only. In this scenario, a known number of mosquitoes would be released inside a sealed container that had a Spartan Mosquito Pro Tech, and their survival over time would be compared to that inside a control cage.
There are numerous problems with testing attractive toxic sugar baits (ATSBs) in cages. The most obvious is that there are no alternative sugar or water sources for mosquitoes and thus the test doesn’t measure, at all, how attractive the device might be in the real world (consumers’ yards).
Another major problem is that Spartan Mosquito sets up experiments in way that biases the outcomes. This can be illustrated by evaluating an experiment involving the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator they posted about on Facebook:
On the bottom left of the video there’s a view of the “Product” treatment — this tube is presumably filled with sugar, yeast, water, and salt (the listed active ingredient). The tube on the right shows the “Control” treatment, presumably filled with only sugar, yeast, and water (but no salt). However, the Eradicator in the “Control” cage doesn’t have a cap. The absence of a cap means that mosquitoes in search of water and sugar can easily get both simply by crawling into the tube. I.e., the experiment was designed in a way to easily ensure that mosquitoes in the “Control” tank lived longer than those in the “Product” tank.
The video also reveals another strategy of Spartan Mosquito, that of implying that all 378 mosquitoes that died in the “Product” cage died because they entered the tube, ingested some fluid, then died. You can see part of this pile of dead mosquitoes at the bottom of the screen grab below (left).
There’s zero evidence in the video that any of those mosquitoes ingested the fluid inside the tube. All that’s presented in the video is a compilation of 3 or 4 clips showing individual mosquitoes entering or exiting the tubes. The screen grab below shows one of these instances along with the suggestive phrase, “Mosquitoes enter Spartan Mosquito Eradicators to feed on the solution inside.”
What’s important to notice here is that the company did not include a compilation of hundreds of clips showing mosquitoes going into the tube. If Spartan Mosquito had these clips I’m positive they would have used them. Plus the video doesn’t show a single mosquito exiting with a distended abdomen, which would easily show that a mosquito had ingested fluid. My conclusion is that all the mosquitoes piled up on the bottom of the “Product” cage died from some other cause. The most likely explanation is simple dehyradation. Regardless, it certainly had nothing to do with mosquitoes going inside and drinking saltwater, because scientists have showed that the saltwater in Spartan Mosquito Eradicators is not lethal to mosquitoes.
The experiment I’ve critiqued above concerns a “minimum risk” pesticide, of course, and I acknowledge that Spartan Mosquito may not have needed to be particularly careful in how it set up and analyzed experiments (many states don’t even require proof that such devices work). However, it seems possible that the company adopted some of the same strategies when designing experiments for the Spartan Mosquito Pro Tech. And it seems possible the company might represent the outcomes to the EPA in the same way, persuading regulators that the deaths in the “Product” treatment were from mosquitoes going inside the tubes and then drinking the toxic fluid, when in reality there’s no evidence of this happening.
It’s probably worth mentioning that Spartan Mosquito is being sued for false advertising and that over a dozen states (CA, CT, ID, IN, KS, MD, ME, MT, NE, NM, NV, NY, OK, PA, SD, UT, VA, WA, DC, and PR) have prohibited sales of the Eradicator. And California has denied a registration to the Pro Tech. The company is also being sued for breach of contract, fraud, and trademark infringement by several other companies.
Given all of the above, I was not surprised to eventually discover that the EPA registration decision was not just based on efficacy data. Instead, Spartan Mosquito apparently convinced the EPA that the device should be fast-tracked. I first learned of this from a radio segment featuring Jeremy Hirsch (the inventor, founder, and current chairman of the board). During the interview the host said, “Hirsch is attempting to get an early green-light because mosquitoes are so dangerous”.
How, exactly, does one persuade the EPA that a pesticide should be rushed through the registration process? It turns out that Spartan Mosquito hired a lobbying firm (Gunster Strategies Worldwide) to get this done. Below is a document (now deleted) that I found on Gunster Strategies’ website. The scheme is spelled out in astonishing detail:
In regard to the op-eds mentioned in the document, it appears that an influential health official in Togo (Dr Tinah) was one of the writers, though it came in the form of a press release. It would be interesting to know who actually wrote that press release and also whether Dr Tinah was paid in some way.
I’m still trying to figure out who the firm payed to write letters to EPA officials. I would also like to know which administrators at the EPA were targeted.
Although not mentioned in the strategy document, Spartan Mosquito and one of its founders (Jeremy Hirsch) gave approximately $10,000 to the Cindy Hyde-Smith, the senator who chairs the committee with EPA oversight. I don’t think they donated to any other senator. It would be interesting to know whether Senator Hyde-Smith was one of the persons who called or wrote EPA officials about the Pro Tech.
I’m not sure how it fits into categories listed above, but it’s possible that two companies (see below) were created for the sole purpose of influencing the Pro Tech’s registration process at the EPA. Both companies claimed to be non-profits that highlighted their goal of helping people in dire need. But they were both singularly interested in promoting Spartan Mosquito. So my guess is they were involved somehow in the scheme.
1. Innovative Mosquito Control, Inc
Innovative Mosquito Control (INMOCO) purports to be a public benefit corporation devoted to fighting malaria in Africa. As part of this effort it claims to have partnered with Spartan Mosquito to promote/supply the company’s tubes to the region. Its CEO and President is Omar Arouna (2nd from left in photograph below), a lobbyist based in D.C. who typically charges $1,500/hr for consulting and social media campaigns. There’s no further information on who works at the company or whether it even has employees. Contributing to the lack of information is that fact that the business was set up in Delaware, a state popular among companies that want to keep the true owner secret. And the company’s website was housed on a server in the U.S. Virgin Islands, also famous for companies that want to obscure their operations. It all seems needlessly secretive for a company that is ostensibly fighting malaria. But here’s the interesting part: Mr Arouna has worked with Gunster Strategies on several occasions. And as a minor fact, both INMOCO and Gunster Strategies use Wix for websites. It seems likely that they collaborated here, too.
What’s also interesting is that soon after the Pro Tech got its registration from the EPA, INMOCO’s website was taken down and its Facebook page (which has zero followers) has had no further posts. And Mr Arouna’s LinkedIn profile is devoid of any mention of this endeavor. It’s as if the whole operation was created just to give the illusion that Spartan Mosquito was going to rid the world of malaria, a fact that could be used to manipulate reviewers at the EPA.
2. West Nile Education, Eradication & Prevention
WEEP & Recover, a Mississippi non-profit, was also set up two days before the EPA’s consideration of the Pro Tech. It’s run by James Hendry, probably most famous for his other non-profit, Mississippi for Family Values. The WEEP & Recover website and Facebook page are full of slick graphics and videos, most of which feature Spartan Mosquito and, notably, never mention any other mosquito-control company.
Functionally, WEEP & Recover is an advertising arm of Spartan Mosquito. The videos, graphics, and website design are all provided by the branding firm, Unify by Bread. Unify by Bread also produced a heartwarming video about hardware store staff that used Spartan Mosquito products as backdrops. My guess is that all of this was funded by Spartan Mosquito, perhaps channeled through Gunster Strategies.
In summary, it appears the EPA was played.
The EPA says it will not reevaluate the Pro Tech’s registration until 2035, but state lead agencies (SLAs) retain the legal right to require a pesticide company to make label changes to comply with individual state laws, as long as those recommendations are already covered under FIFRA. And any state can require a company to provide additional experimental data for any reason. Regulators can also just share their concerns with the staff at the EPA who are in charge of enforcement. Given these avenues, below are my suggestions for how states might help the average consumer better understand the Pro Tech’s abilities to kill mosquitoes:
- Require Spartan Mosquito to clarify on its website and packaging that the device has been shown to kill mosquitoes in cages only. The current packaging, instruction manuals, and website use words such as “outdoors”, “yard”, “backyard”, and “property” to imply to consumers that the device kills mosquitoes outside, which as far as I know the company has not demonstrated. If asking for this change outright seems unreasonable, a state regulatory agency could, I think, request that Spartan Mosquito supply the experimental data that supports its implied claim about outdoor efficacy. States can ask Spartan Mosquito for details on the experimental design, too — it should have a control, be replicated, be double-blinded, and be done by a qualified person who is not employed by or otherwise affiliated with the company (this is the standard that many states have for “minimum risk” pesticides, so I think it’s reasonable for one that claims to protect human health).
- Require Spartan Mosquito to omit or change the phrase, “mosquitoes will gather around the tubes”, that is currently printed on the package label in several locations. As currently worded it is an efficacy claim. Again, states could request that Spartan Mosquito supply the supporting data that show mosquitoes gather around the devices when they are placed in yards. As per above, the experiment should be well described and not conducted by the company itself, or by board members of the company, who still have a financial stake in the outcomes. In lieu of quantitative data from controlled, replicated, double-blinded experiments, states might instead ask for a photograph showing mosquitoes gathered around a Pro Tech that is deployed outdoors. If the claim is true the data and/or photograph should be easy to supply.
- Require Spartan Mosquito to add wording to packaging and website to clarify that the Pro Tech will not completely eliminate mosquitoes. The EPA has already directed the company to include such wording. The addition seems needed because its previous product, the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator, is advertised to kill up to 95% of mosquitoes. Consumers who have used Spartan Mosquito Eradicators for years might thus assume that the Pro Tech has the same level of efficacy, if not higher. Company has not yet made the change.
- Require company to clarify what the sugar and yeast are for. If they are active in some way (e.g., to attract mosquitoes to the tube) they should be listed as active ingredients. Also, the yeast will consume the sugar and produce ethanol and carbon dioxide, both of which can be lethal to mosquitoes. If sugar and yeast are truly inert then require company to omit them and use just water.
- Require company to remove or change the testimonials on its website. Currently the company features nine testimonials from people discussing the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator, a different pesticide product. I.e., given the date when these testimonials were posted on the company’s Facebook page, the people would not yet have had the opportunity to test the Pro Tech for the season. Company should be encouraged to use testimonials in which the consumer has either specified “Pro Tech” or mentions boric acid in some way.
- Require company to remove the phrases, “attractive toxic sugar bait“, and, “slow release device“, from its website. The “attractive toxic sugar bait” implies outdoor efficacy (i.e., tube will successfully compete with natural sources of sugar to attract mosquitoes) and the “slow release” suggests that the boric acid gradually activates over a month (untrue, as far as I know). Company regularly uses these phrases in response to customer queries on its Facebook page. Regardless of company’s intent, neither phrase is mentioned in the EPA registration and are therefore off-label claims.
- Require Spartan Mosquito to change the product name. EPA guidelines expressly prohibit the use of any brand name that implies heightened efficacy. The phrase “Pro Tech” is shorthand for “professional technology” and thus does not comply with FIFRA.
- Prohibit company from using the device’s alternate brand name, “Spartan Mosquito Eradicator Pro Tech”. The reasoning behind this suggestion is that the EPA specifically prohibits the use of the word “Eradicator” in brand names.
The challenge, of course, is to get states interested in the above, and I’m sensing that some are not aware that states are allowed to (and should) give attention to how EPA-registered pesticides are marketed. I’m hoping that once the class-action suit against Spartan Mosquito starts to get national coverage, pesticide-registration staff will find it easier to embrace enforcement actions. Indeed, most states still allow sales of the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator even though it doesn’t contain an ingredient that kills mosquitoes.
Another likely source of hesitation is the presence of a senator from Mississippi, Cindy Hyde-Smith, on several committees with jurisdiction over the EPA. (Spartan Mosquito has given her money.) I.e., few people want to go after a prominent Mississippi pesticide company right now. This probably also explains why the American Mosquito Control Association (currently lobbying for money, legislation) has remained publicly silent on Spartan Mosquito’s tubes despite extensive internal communications about the device.
If you have information on the Spartan Mosquito Pro Tech that I’ve missed, send me a message or leave a comment on this post.