Posted by Claudia Grazioso on June 17, 2011
Ah, summer… The season of barbeques, fireflies, melty ice cream cones, Red Rover after dinner and, of course, the ever-present cry, “These %$^#@* BUGS!” For some reason, my husband and I are both irresistible to mosquitoes. We’re like two big filet mignons walking around outside. And so, of course, our children don’t have a fighting chance. They get swarmed. Which was all just a part of growing up until West Nile reared its ugly head.
When I was kid, the idea of going inside before it was pitch dark outside in the summer was wholly unacceptable. And I paid for it with a multitude of bug bites. My mom would sometimes hand me a citronella stick that was by and large useless. Or she’d tell me to come inside if I was unhappy. But she certainly wasn’t going to leave her lounge chair on the screened in porch to go dig around in the medicine cabinet and garage and beach bag for a bottle of DEET bug repellant that had probably long since expired anyway. It turns out now that was a good thing, because recent studies on DEET are more than a little worrisome.
N, N-Diethyl-3-methylbenzamide (yes, I do feel smart just typing that), also known as DEET, was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency decades ago (no surprise there), but just how safe it actually is has been up for debate for some time. According to the DEET manufacturers, it’s completely safe because, basically, the EPA says it is. The American Academy of Pediatrics maintains that it’s pretty safe. They suggest never using a concentration of more than 10 percent on children. And some people feel that if you avoid eyes, mouths and open cuts plus use it sparingly and wash it off after you get inside, there’s really not much to worry about. And that may well be true, though DEET has been associated with mostly minor ailments like rashes and skin irritations, nausea (the smell is pretty powerful) as well as dizziness in some people.
But a recent study found that DEET is a neurotoxin. In looking at how DEET impacted the brain, the study concluded, “DEET is not simply a behavior modifying chemical, but also inhibits the activity of a key central nervous system enzyme, acetyl cholinesterase, in both mammals and insects.” (My emphasis) More studies are needed to determine if it is, in fact, dangerous to humans, but when we’re talking about a substance that is absorbed through the skin, my own opinion is that you don’t need to know anything more than it’s a neurotoxin to know to avoid it.
Call it mother’s intuition, but I never used DEET on my kids. There was something just too… chemical-ly about it. I opted instead for an insect repellent I got at a health food store when we were vacationing in a West Nile hatchery. Not all natural repellants are strong enough to send mosquitoes packing, but oil of lemon eucalyptus has been found to be about as effective as DEET.
If you live in an area with a mosquito problem and can’t find a good natural alternative, know that parents have used DEET safely for many years and using repellant is certainly preferable to contracting a mosquito-borne illness. But if you’d like to investigate more natural alternatives, they might be a safer.