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Issues of the Environment: West Nile Virus And The Dangers Of Deet

West Nile Virus
The Ecology Center

Wet weather in Michigan this year has meant more flooding and standing water. Now, we are at the height of mosquito season which brings the threat of West Nile Virus. As bad as the illness is, some of the methods of prevention are just as dangerous. Learn more in this week's 'Issues of the Environment.'


Fight the Bite--Without Toxics!

Would you knowingly spray a chemical on yourself or your children that has been linked to motor deficits and learning and memory dysfunction? A chemical that has been found by the National Institutes for Health to cross the placenta, that sacred barrier that protects unborn children from harmful substances? Of course not.

But, for years, consumers have accepted the potential neurotoxic health effects of DEET in insect repellents in exchange for the assurance that the chemical works well, lasts long—and protects against West Nile virus. Earlier this June, Michigan recorded its first cases of the disease in three crows in Ingham County. Within days, the state put out the call for preparedness. "Michiganders should take the precautionary steps of applying repellents during peak mosquito biting periods such as dusk and dawn and to drain standing water around their homes to remove mosquito breeding sites," according to a State of Michigan press release.

The State advises using mosquito repellent products containing active ingredients registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Fortunately, consumer demand for safer products, coupled with scientific research has created a thriving market for effective DEET alternatives. Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, and para-menthane-diol (PMD, synthesized oil of lemon eucalyptus) are all EPA-registered active ingredients; but don't have known adverse health effects.    

Walk In Woods

Research shows that some botanical oils, such as soybean, geraniol, thyme, citronella, and clove, also protect against insect bites, but may require more frequent application. Protection times range from 1.5 - 5 hours versus 2 – 8 hours for EPA-registered active ingredients. Manufacturers are not recquired to register these botanical oils as active ingredients with the EPA due to the lack of any safety concerns.

DEET-free repellents Active Ingredient: Picaridin

  • Natrapel 8 Hour
  • OFF! FamilyCare Insect Repellent II (Clean Feel)
  • Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent
  • Active Ingredient: Lemon Eucalyptus/ PMD
  • Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent
  • Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent

Botanical/ Minimum Risk (Exempt from EPA registration due to no safety concerns)

  • Badger Anti-Bug Shake & Spray
  • Bug Band
  • Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent
  • Cutter Natural Insect Repellent
  • Hom’s Bite Blocker
  • Jason Quit Bugging Me! Insect Repellent
  • Repel Natural Insect Repellent
  • Well-in-Hand Bug-A-Boo

If you do rely upon DEET-containing products, remember these tips:

Do not use DEET/ sunscreen combination products. The frequent reapplication of sunscreen will, “…pose unnecessary exposure to DEET,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. DEET is not water-soluble and will last up to eight hours, while sunscreen washes off and may only last a few hours.

Do not use products with more than 30% DEET. They do not offer any extra protection according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and should especially be avoided for use on children.

For all insect repellents, the EPA recommends:

“Do not allow children to handle…and do not apply to children’s hands. When using on children, apply to your own hands and then put it on the child. Apply sparingly around ears.” According to the EPA Reregistration Eligibility Decision report on DEET, absorption of pesticides through the skin is, “…approximately four times greater around the ears than the forearm.”

To help you find the right product for you, consult: EPA’s Search for a Repellent that is Right for You

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu