"Let's all just avoid being bitten by mosquitoes," warns Dr. Robert Hotchkiss of the Mississippi State Department of Health. At the Aug. 30 Jackson City Council meeting, Hotchkiss promoted the state's "Fight the Bite" campaign, which includes billboards and residential door hangers that advise: "Use mosquito repellent with DEET according to the label. Spray clothing with repellants containing permethrin or DEET." The door hanger, however, leaves out some pertinent information: possible dangers of DEET.
In 1989, when the Lyme's Disease scare was at its gravest, the New York State Department of Health investigated five reports of seizures associated with the use of DEET. Four were boys under age 7. While studies were inconclusive, health officials in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey issued an alert advising caution when using repellents containing DEET. The EPA estimates that every year one-third of the U.S. population uses the chemical, which was patented by the U.S. Army in 1946, and released for public use in 1957. Reports of reactions have been rare, at least compared to dangerous reactions to many pharmaceuticals, but as the public's use of DEET increases, so does the risk of problems.
In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency completed a re-assessment of DEET and, apparently recognizing the significant vulnerability of children to the chemical, prohibited child-safety claims on product labels. The EPA endorsed DEET with an important disclaimer: DEET is safe "as long as consumers follow label directions and take proper precautions."
Duke University Medical Center pharmacologist Mohamed Abou-Donia, recently conducted studies that connected DEET to possible damaging effects on brain cells. Abou-Donia reports: "With heavy exposure to DEET and other insecticides, humans may experience memory loss, headache, weakness, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, tremors and shortness of breath. These symptoms may not be evident until months or even years after exposure. The most severe damage occurs when DEET is used concurrently with other insecticides, such as permethrin, for prolonged and frequent periods of time."
Abou-Donia recommends further government testing of DEET. Meantime, he suggests using extreme caution. Dr. Andrew Weil, noted physician and author, calls DEET "nasty and toxic." He doesn't, however, say you should never use it. "[Y]ou don't have to spray it on your skin … you can spray the repellant on your clothing," he advises on http://www.drweil.com
Use caution then, too; reports show that DEET can damage watch crystals, eyeglasses and some synthetic fabrics. Dr. James A. Duke, author of "The Green Pharmacy," says he is opposed to DEET because "it dissolves my plastic glasses, and once on the skin, it quickly passes through the skin into the bloodstream, where I don't want synthetic chemicals with tongue-twister names." (DEET's real name is "N,N-diethyl-m toluamide." Say that three times fast.)
You may be able to prevent mosquito bites without chemicals. Stay inside at dawn and dusk. When outside, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants with socks; loose-fitting clothes in light colors with tightly woven fabrics work best.
Natural repellents containing essential oils are available at health-food stores. Weil recommends products containing geraniol or neem oil, which one study found to provide significant protection for up to 12 hours, he says. Duke suggests mountain mint, pennyroyal, basil, citronella or citrus essential oils, and suggests a mixture of citronella, lavender and pennyroyal in a vegetable oil base.
Robin Parrish of Rainbow Cooperative in Jackson recommends Green Ban, which contains citronella, peppermint, soy, cajuput, tea tree, lavender and bergamot ($6.68 for 25 ounces). You can also mix your own formula. Experiment by mixing several drops of the recommended essentials oils into a vegetable oil base until you find something that works.
DEET: Use With Care
• Use insecticides containing DEET sparingly and infrequently.
• Be wary of using insect repellent containing DEET on children.
• Never use insect repellent containing DEET on infants.
• Be aware that DEET can be present in commonly used preparations like insecticide-based lice-killing shampoos.
• Do not combine insecticides or try not to use them while using medications. Even an over-the-counter antihistamine could interact with DEET to cause toxic side effects. (Remember, in our legal-drug-friendly society, people are much more likely to be using multiple drugs or sprays than in 1957 when the use of DEET began.)
• Be careful when spraying your yard for insects; try not to take medications afterward.
• Stick with products containing lower concentrations — less than 10 percent for children and no more than 30 percent for adults. Higher concentrations don't work better, they just last longer.