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After two monsoon months with literally more rain than the Amazon gets, Vermont is now a giant mosquito farm, and a desperate populace is frantically reading the Environmental Working Group’s new guide to insect repellents. The first thing we’ve noticed? The bite it takes out of conventional wisdom.
The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) new guide to bug repellents outlines what works, what doesn’t, what’s safe, and what isn’t. Five ingredients met the EWG’s safety and effectiveness standards, and only one of these was natural. The rest were synthetic chemicals, and DEET was among them.
That’s a bit of a surprise given that DEET melts plastic, destroys rubber, and kills vinyl. If it does that, what’s it doing to us? Apparently not much if we’re careful. The EWG makes a valid point: DEET been used by hundreds of millions of people billions of times for over half a century. Yet only a relative handful of adverse reactions to the stuff have been reported. Statistically speaking, if absolutely everyone in America used DEET today, just 3 people would have issues. That’s more than impressive. Factor in the fact that DEET works extremely well, and calamities like Lyme disease and West Nile virus are far more common and more dangerous, and I can see why it gets the okay.
Just don’t go nuts, says the EWG. Though such reports are rare and usually linked to sky-high exposures, DEET has nevertheless been associated with neurological problems like seizures, slurred speech, and tremors. The best bet is to use products with no more than a 30% concentration (studies show higher amounts don’t protect any better), and avoid frequent and/or heavy use.
The four other ingredients that made the grade were picaridin, a chemical called IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (the only naturally-derived substance on the list), and para-menthane-3,8-diol, a.k.a. PMD, a (sometimes synthetic) concentrate of the active repelling substance in oil of lemon eucalyptus.
Each of these solutions has pluses and minuses. Picaridin, for example, appears safer than DEET, but it has a negligible track record, and some studies say its effectiveness doesn’t last as long. IR3535 has a solid safety record but it also melts plastic and is a serious eye irritant. Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is a natural tree extract that’s been artificially refined to boost its concentration of PMD. It works but may be a possible allergen and shouldn’t be used on kids under three.
All of which means that when the bugs come out to feast on you and me, there’s no perfect one-size-fits-all way to kill their appetites. My advice? Read the EWG’s report. It’s got the information you need to take the sting out of whatever’s bugging you this summer.
About the Inkslinger
The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America’s most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds.
Photo: Tedd Okano