So far, there has been little if any connection established between discarded scrap tires and the spread of the West Nile Virus.
But that doesn't mean that tires will forever have a clean bill of health regarding the dreaded virus, which so far this year has accounted for 43 deaths out of 985 reported U.S. cases as of Sept. 9, experts said.
Scrap tires already are known to breed mosquitoes if left alone and unprocessed, and it is imperative that those who have scrap tires nearby-even in a seemingly harmless form, such as a tire swing-take precautions.
The West Nile Virus is spread by infected mosquitoes to birds, horses and other animals. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that more than 110 species of birds in the U.S. have been infected with the virus.
A CDC map issued Sept. 9 showed that of the 48 continental states, only six western states have escaped the virus entirely. Of the remaining 42 states, 31 have reported cases of human infection.
Louisiana has one of the worst epidemics of the disease, with 222 reported cases in humans-more than 20 percent of all those reported in the U.S. Illinois leads the nation with 224 reported cases in humans and nine deaths.
Meanwhile, the virus continues to spread; Ontario on Sept. 5 reported five cases of human West Nile infection to date, while Indiana reported its first West Nile death Sept. 4.
It is rare for humans to even get sick from the virus, according to the CDC and other sources. Only one in five of those infected will feel any symptoms at all, and only one in 150 will become seriously ill.
The West Nile Virus causes flu-like symptoms in humans-fever, headache, body aches. For the elderly and those with impaired immune systems, however, it can prove fatal.
``The information that I have suggests that the mosquitoes that nest in tire piles aren't necessarily those that carry the West Nile Virus,'' said Michael Blumenthal, senior technical director for the Rubber Manufacturers Association.
Mosquitoes of the species Culex-also known as ``wood'' mosquitoes-are by far the most likely to carry West Nile, according to Mr. Blumenthal. Culex mosquitoes tend to breed in water collected in or near trees, whereas the Aedes mosquito-including Aedes albopictus, or the Asian tiger mosquito, which first entered this country via infested tires-is the type most likely to lay eggs in stagnant water collected in scrap tires.
However, Culex mosquitoes occasionally can breed in tires, and Aedes mosquitoes occasionally can carry the West Nile Virus, particularly if they bite birds that have the virus. Aedes albopictus has a further nasty reputation as a carrier of encephalitis and dengue fever.
Scrap tire processing facilities aren't likely breeding grounds for West Nile-carrying mosquitoes, according to Mr. Blumenthal. A properly processed tire-chipped, ground or fumigated, or else moved off the property within two weeks-isn't a prospect for the laying or hatching of mosquito eggs.
``It takes 14 to 17 days between the laying and the hatching of a mosquito egg, so if you move the tires out within 14 days, you will disrupt the mosquito's life cycle,'' he said.
Furthermore, the vast majority of mosquitoes never travel farther than 500 to 1,000 yards from where they were hatched, Mr. Blumenthal noted. Since most scrap tire processing facilities aren't in residential areas, they provide a dearth of human fodder for mosquitoes.
However, this does mean that single tires or small groups of tires on residential property-``abandoned in an old barn, or even used as a tire swing where someone forgot to punch a hole in the tire,'' he said-are potential danger zones.
Faced with a West Nile epidemic in their state, the members of the Louisiana Independent Tire Dealers Association are taking no chances. Working with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, the LITDA has begun a statewide media blitz offering to take stray tires off the hands of their owners.
Louisiana is the only state whose scrap tire program allows motorists to leave their old tires with dealers free of charge, said Norm Rhea, LITDA executive director. According to Mr. Rhea, Dennis Richard-president of Twin Tire in Harvey, La., and a past LITDA president-came up with the idea of sponsoring a statewide tire-gathering campaign to fight the West Nile Virus.
``They did a big TV deal on a New Orleans station,'' Mr. Rhea said, adding that the media campaign has spread to Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Monroe and other cities statewide.
LITDA is providing the public with lists of local independent tire dealers willing to take as many as 10 tires off the hands of each individual who contacts them. ``If they have more than 10 tires, they need to call me,'' Mr. Rhea said. ``I can put them in touch with the DEQ on how to get a permit to dispose of the tires.''
Mr. Rhea said on Sept. 5 that he had received nearly 300 phone calls from concerned consumers in the past three weeks.
``We probably have taken between 500 and 1,000 tires out of the environment,'' he said, adding that nearly 200 tires had been gathered in Monroe alone. ``We're doing this through LITDA members only. This is not a program that's offered through Sam's Club, Wal-Mart, Sears or any chain store.''
Mr. Blumenthal praised the LITDA program. ``The LITDA is doing the absolute right thing, and they should be applauded for their efforts,'' he said. ``They're ahead of the issue, and that's very positive.''
Neither Mr. Blumenthal nor Mr. Rhea knew of any other state tire dealer association with a similar program.
Meanwhile, Louisiana residents who want to know more about the tire gathering program may contact their local LITDA member dealers or call Mr. Rhea at (225) 664-5181.