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Bite Me (Not): Safer Solutions for Beating Bugs

Publisher: Seventh Generation, July 20, 2006

As readers of the Inspired Protagonist know, in mid-June Jeffrey Hollender and Seventh Generation Director of Corporate Consciousness, Gregor Barnum, toured the Brazilian rainforest to check out Greenpeace projects in the region. One of their biggest worries? Ferocious disease-carrying jungle bugs, which came in Amazonian sizes. Believe or not, they weren’t bitten even once by anything. So it was with this that we were inspired to assemble this guide to keeping our own home-grown insects at bay, without turning our bodies into hazard waste sites.

Once upon a time in North America, there were mosquito bites to be soothed and ticks to be pulled, but no real worries beyond a bump and some itch. Today, it’s a different story as threats of insect-borne diseases loom. In many sections of the country protection from biting bugs is no longer a matter of avoiding a little discomfort. It’s a matter of staying healthy.

To protect ourselves, most of us reach for a plethora of products containing a single active ingredient: DEET, a thankfully short acronym for a chemical called N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide. (In case you're curious, diethyl refers to two ethyl groups in the molecule hence the double “E”.)

DEET was invented by the U.S. Army in 1946 to keep biting insects away from soldiers who had enough to worry about. Although scientists aren’t completely sure of the mechanism by which the chemical works, they believe it confuses the sensory inputs of mosquitoes, ticks, and biting flies. Female mosquito antennae, for example, have receptors tuned to lactic acid, a chemical we excrete on our skin. It’s thought that DEET somehow turns these receptors off so that a mosquito landing on our skin is, in effect, tricked into thinking we’re not food.

However it works, DEET turned out to be a highly effective insect repellent, and when the chemical was made available to civilians in 1957 a grateful nation never looked back. Today, DEET is the chemical the vast majority of Americans apply whenever the bugs come out.

Many people, however, think that perhaps we should be applying something else instead. That’s because evidence exists to suggest that DEET isn’t as safe as the public believes it to be.

DEET has been shown to migrate easily into the body from the skin. Though there’s no evidence to suggest that it accumulates in our tissues to any appreciable degree, DEET that’s absorbed into the body remains there for at least a few hours. This exposure, while limited, can have consequences.

Since 1960, a handful of seizure cases have been linked to DEET exposure. These events, while quite rare, indicate the possibility that negative neurological effects can occur in sensitive individuals or those exposed to high levels of the chemical. The University of Texas Medical School, for example, has reported 13 cases, including three fatalities, where children under the age of eight developed encephalopathy after being overexposed to DEET. Most of these overexposures resulted from repeat applications of products containing a DEET concentration of between 10% and 20%.

Further evidence against DEET comes from a 2001 study at the Duke University Medical Center, which found that the chemical causes brain cell death and behavioral changes in rats after frequent and prolonged use. Rats exposed to DEET over time at levels equal to average human exposures performed significantly poorer on tests for muscle control, coordination, and strength. Researchers concluded that heavy human exposures to DEET may cause memory loss, headaches, fatigue, muscle weakness, joint pain, tremors, and shortness of breath. They also found that these symptoms may become more severe when DEET exposures occur in tandem with exposures to other chemicals like pesticides or medications.

DEET has also been known to trigger attacks in asthma sufferers after application, and the chemical has an infamous reputation for dissolving certain plastics like those used in many watch crystals and sunglasses. Together, these facts suggest that new strategies and alternatives are needed. Here’s what you can do to keep the bugs and the DEET away.

First, cut down on your need for any kind of repellent at all by taking these steps to limit your contact with mosquitoes and other biting bugs:

• Whenever feasible, wear long-sleeved clothes, socks and long pants. Loose fitting clothing will retain less heat making you less of a lure.

• Choose colors that blend in with your background. Mosquitoes find their prey partly through contrasting colors and movement. Camouflaging yourself from bugs will help disguise your presence.

• If you’ll be moving around, choose light colored clothing, which is harder for mosquitoes to see.

• Set up some netting if you’ll be in one spot. Or use netting around your head if you’re on the move.

• Don’t use perfumes, colognes, and other fragrant products that can attract biting bugs.

• Mosquitoes are generally most active at dusk and dawn. Try to minimize outdoor activities during these times and after dark in general.

• Avoid standing water, ponds, and stagnant pools, etc. where mosquitoes breed. Remove any standing water sources near your home and get rid of things that collect rainwater like containers, clogged gutters, old tires, etc.

• Some claim that eating bananas, peanuts, peanut butter, or chocolate causes your body to secrete serotonin-laden scents that attract mosquitoes.

• To stop ticks, wear long pants and tuck them into your socks to seal off skin. Avoid long grass and underbrush. After any outdoor excursion, inspect your body for ticks. Be especially on-guard during the months of June and July when young ticks are at their smallest and are hardest to spot.

• Don’t use bug zappers, which indiscriminately kill beneficial insects as well and aren’t all that effective against mosquitoes anyway.

These steps can reduce your encounters with biting insects, but they won’t eliminate them. The following natural solutions can provide a final measure of protection:

• Soybean oil and repellents that contain it have been found to protect against mosquitoes for an average of 94 minutes.

• The Centers for Disease Control has found that natural oil of lemon eucalyptus protects
about as well as lower concentrations of DEET. Note, however, that this ingredient has not been tested in children under age three and experts do not advise using it on the very young for this reason.

• Citronella oil has been found effective, but only for a period of about 20 minutes.

• In general, know that natural repellents need to be reapplied more frequently than DEET-based formulas. Your mileage may vary!

• For after-bite care, apply a single drop of lavender oil to the bite. If you or your child have been eaten alive, prepare a solution of one cup cider vinegar (or the juice of two lemons), 10 drops of lavender essential oil, and five drops of thyme oil. Add it to bathwater to soothe bites or apply to a washcloth and soak individual bite sites.

If you must use DEET, keep these precautions in mind:

• Never use DEET on a child under two years old.

• Use only a 10% or lower solution of DEET on children over the age of two. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting children’s DEET applications to just one per day. Don’t apply DEET to kids’ hands because this can increase the risk of ingestion via hand-to-mouth contact.

• Adults should not use products containing more than a 30% solution of DEET. Higher concentrations do not increase a product’s effectiveness and serve only to expose you to more of the chemical.

• Don’t apply DEET repellents to open wounds

• Wash off any DEET you apply as soon as possible

• Don’t use repellents or products containing permethrins or pyrethrins. These chemicals can enhance the toxic effects of DEET and are hazardous themselves. Similarly, avoid permethrin or pyrethrin sprays intended for clothing or equipment. Clothing treated to repel insects is usually coated with permethrins and will also expose you to this chemical.

• A new repellent called picaridin is now beginning to appear in American products. The ultimate safety of this new chemical is currently unknown. As such, and in accordance with the Precautionary Principle, we cannot recommend it until conclusive research is conducted.

Editor’s note: We’ve reported the findings of the studies above because we feel they offer important clues about the ways toxins affect human beings and the environment, two issues of key concern to us. This reporting, however, should in no way be taken as an endorsement of animal testing or of research methods that rely on animals. Seventh Generation does not condone nor conduct tests on animals.

This article originally appeared in "The Non-Toxic Times," an e-newsletter published by Seventh Generation. Each month, Seventh Generation researches their extensive library and network of experts to bring you important tips, resources and news about the issues that affect the health of your home, family and the environment.

Seventh Generation offers a full selection of non-toxic household products for a clean home, a healthy family, and a safer world. They are committed to providing products that perform as well as conventional products, and are also safe and environmentally responsible. For valuable coupons and to subscribe to their e-newsletter, "The Non-Toxic Times," visit www.seventhgeneration.com

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