It's mosquito and tick season--time to take steps to ward off bites. The repellent DEET is very effective at keeping mosquitoes, ticks and other insects at bay. However, it is a neurotoxin which, as shown in Duke University Medical Center studies, affects brain cells. Further, it is absorbed quickly through the skin and enters the bloodstream. Commercial DEET repellents are often formulated with the solvent ethanol, which increases the amount of DEET absorbed through the skin.
As with all potentially harmful chemicals in the environment, children are at increased risk for subtle brain changes caused by DEET. Their skin more readily absorbs chemicals and chemicals pose more of a threat to their developing nervous systems.
The author of the Duke University studies had this to say:
The take home message is to be safe and cautious when using insecticides. Never use insect repellents on infants, and be wary of using them on children in general. Never combine insecticides with each other or use them with other medications. Even so simple a drug as an antihistamine could interact with DEET to cause toxic side effects . . . Until we have more data on potential interactions in humans, safe is better than sorry.
I do want to acknowledge that many government agencies and health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, maintain that DEET in concentrations of up to 30% is safe for kids over 2 months of age. (Although, see the lengthy list of precautions the EPA requires on DEET product labels.) If I were traveling to an area where dangerous insect-borne diseases were prevalent I would weigh the benefits and risks of DEET and other chemical repellents. But here in western PA, I choose not to apply this potentially harmful insecticide to my child's skin.
To protect my family from mosquitoes and ticks I take the following measures:
- Wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts when hiking or in the woods; tucking pants into socks. Not wearing bright colors.
- Performing a full body "tick check" upon returning home from anywhere that might be infested with ticks, including our backyard.
- Checking clothes for ticks upon returning home.
- We don't use scented products (perfumes, soaps, deodorants, etc.), but these should be avoided as they can attract insects.
- Botanical insect repellents: I found a natural repellent that works well on my kid, who is a mosquito magnet. All Terrain Kid's Herbal Armor uses six natural oils to repel insects. Because natural repellents work due to the scent of the oils, they do need to be reapplied more frequently than chemical repellents. This one works for about two hours and then needs to be reapplied.
- I also plan to try another repellent, Bite Blocker, that I've read good things about. It contains soybean oil and geranium oil; a 2002 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that it provided 1.5 hours of protection from mosquito bites.
- Finally, I have been using these wonderful Bug Out! candles on our deck in the evening to keep away mosquitoes. I've tried the original and geranium scents. These are GMO-free soy wax candles that use essential oils to repel bugs. I found them at Whole Foods in East Liberty; they have the 20 oz. tin for 16.99 and the 2 lb. tub for 21.99.