Most of us have had the unfortunate experience of having an outdoor activity ruined by bugs.
Bug bites can be painful and itchy. Some bites swell and become irritated or even infected.
To make matters worse, some mosquitoes carry encephalitis or the West Nile virus. This virus can cause serious complications for young children, the elderly or anyone with a compromised immune system.
And then there are ticks, which can carry other serious illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
To protect our children and ourselves, many of us turn to insect repellents. But did you know that the risk of these chemical-laden bug sprays may significantly outweigh the benefits?
What is DEET?
About one-third of commercial insect repellents, whether they are sprays, lotions, towelettes or roll-ons, contain the pesticide DEET as an active ingredient.
DEET (short for diethyltoluamide or N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) is a light yellow oil that was developed by the U.S. Army after our troops were ravaged by mosquito bites and by mosquito-borne diseases – especially malaria – during the jungle warfare of World War II. The chemical was tested first as a farming pesticide and then approved for military use in 1946. It wasn’t approved for civilian use until 11 years later.
How does DEET work?
Does someone in your family get more insect bites than other family members do? There is scientific truth to the idea that some people attract more insects than others.
Mosquitoes, ticks, flies and other bugs detect your presence by the smell of carbon dioxide emitted from your body. Most insect repellents work to mask this odor.
A 2011 study of DEET and fruit flies by Howard Hughes
Medical Institute suggests that the chemical confuses insects by blocking their odor receptors. The concentrations of DEET in commercial repellents range from 4 percent to 100 percent. The higher the concentration, the longer the protection lasts.
Is DEET safe?
In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed its belief that DEET does not present a health concern to the general population, including children. It advises consumers to read and follow label directions.
Still, many parents worry about the effects of DEET on their children, and with good reason.
While little research is available on the adverse effects of DEET on children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding DEET in children less than two months old.
For older children, it advises using DEET with a concentration of less than 30 percent. The EPA recommends parents not allow young children to apply the product themselves and that they apply it to the children’s’ hands or near their eyes and mouths.
One of the more troubling recommendations from the EPA is that consumers who have used a product with DEET wash their skin with soap and water after returning indoors. It also suggests that they wash their clothing before wearing it again.
How safe does that sound to you?
Research has pointed to DEET’s dangers
Pharmacologist Mohamed Abou-Donia of Duke University Medical Center has spent most of his career researching the effects of pesticides.
His troubling research has found that long-term exposure to DEET can impair parts of the brain.
Abou-Donia’s research showed that laboratory rats that were treated with prolonged applications of an average human dose of DEET (40 milligrams per each kilogram body weight) experienced lack of muscle control, as well as less strength and coordination in tests.
They also experienced memory loss as shown in their lack of ability to remember how to perform routine tasks.
Studies show that almost 50 percent of the chemical penetrates into the layers of the skin. Nearly 15 percent of it can reach the bloodstream. Children are at an increased risk because their skin absorbs them more quickly.
In his research, Abou-Donia found that DEET combined with other chemicals, such as picaridin, synthesized plant oils and IR3535 can be even more dangerous than DEET alone. Permethrin is another repellent that is intended for application to clothing but not to skin.
Here are some common side effects of using chemical-based bug repellents:
• Breathing difficulty
• Muscle aches
• Joint pain
• Skin inflammation
• Eye inflammation
• Sleep pattern changes
• Insomnia or sleeplessness
Prolonged exposure can lead to more serious complications.
These rare cases include: depression, anxiety disorders, memory loss, seizures and nervous system disorders.
A Better Way to Stay Safe:
So how can you keep your family safe from insects and insect-borne diseases and still enjoy warm weather outdoor activities?
Become a label reader.
Manufacturers of insect repellent labels are required by law to specify their active ingredients.
The most common are:
• Picaridin (KBR 3023, also known as Bayrepel outside the U.S.)
• Lemon eucalyptus oil and its active ingredient p-menthane 3,8-diol (PMD)
• Permethrin (recommended for use on clothing, shoes, nets, and other gear)
Technical information about these and other bug repellent ingredients can be found at the National Pesticide Information Center website.
An alternative to using these chemical-laden products is to limit your time spent outdoors during peak mosquito hours, which are around dusk and dawn.
You may also help avoid insect bites by wearing long sleeves, long pants and socks whenever possible.
A third and more practical solution is to use DEET-free mosquito and tick repellents with natural ingredients, such as Dr. Fedorenko’s True Organic Tick & Mosquito Repellent which is clinically proven to repel ticks and mosquitoes for up to four hours.
For more information, visit Dr. Fedorenko’s website.