Just Say No to Neurotoxins: There’s a Safer Way to Keep Bugs at Bay

If you’ve ever been driven to the brink of insanity by biting insects descending on your peaceful picnic or backyard BBQ, then you know how important a good repellent can be. And with summer drawing closer, outdoor activities will soon be the order of the day.

When the tormentors arrive, and it feels like your only choices are complete misery or fleeing indoors, it can be difficult to resist the urge to just grab the nearest can and start spraying. In that moment you might wind up asking yourself — is mainstream insect repellent really that bad?

The short answer is yes.

Many common insect repellents use a chemical called N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, or DEET, as their primary active ingredient — which wards off a variety of insects, including mosquitoes, by confusing their odor receptors. Approved for use by the public back in 1957, this chemical was originally developed by the U.S. Army in the 1940’s to repel bugs in a jungle environment.

DEET works much in the same way as a pesticide or even a nerve gas, by attacking the nervous system of insects that come in contact with it, either directly or indirectly. But the destructive impact of this chemical reaches beyond its primary goal because DEET is neurotoxic to all living things, not just bugs. So, while insect repellents containing this ingredient seem to get the job done more effectively than some more natural alternatives, there is a very real cost.

The EPA conducted a review regarding the safety of DEET in 2014 and found that children exposed to this chemical are most at risk for being harmed by this substance, stating, “Adverse health effects have been reported in children and adults in records from poison control center telephone data and in case reports of neurological effects in children, with one of the most common adverse effects being seizures.” The report went on to say, “In addition, encephalopathy, tremor, slurred speech, behavior changes, coma, and even death have been reported in children (exposed to DEET).”  Pregnant woman and unborn babies were also highlighted as a population potentially harmed by this chemical.

Common sense tells us that applying a neurotoxic chemical to our skin, however effective it may be at repelling insects, is a poor decision. The good news is that there are alternatives that may be just as effective at warding off a variety of pests.

Research has shown oil of lemon eucalyptus and soy oil to perform nearly as well at repelling insects as DEET. There are also a variety of essential oils that have been found to have varying levels of effectiveness at keeping bugs at bay including citronella, rose geranium, cedar, peppermint and lemongrass.

Thankfully, there are many products on the market today that include these ingredients individually or in combination with one another. You can see some of them, with a full list of ingredients, here.

However, just because a product is natural does not mean it is safe for all ages, so be sure to follow product labels.

It’s important to remember that avoiding biting insects is not just about finding an effective repellent. Keep your yard free of standing water, as it breeds mosquitoes, and remember that if you’re planning a day at the lake or in the woods, overcast and rainy will always yield more bugs than hot and dry. Wearing proper clothing (like long pants and sleeves, hats and proper footwear) may also help you keep those bites to a minimum.

Image: farhad sadykov

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