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Bug off, but beware.

"Something's wrong with the baby!" my wife cried.

Our son's eyes were puffy, his skin was crimson, and he was wheezing. I dialed our doctor's emergency line.

"Was he stung by a bee?" the doctor asked.

"No. We just put some insect repellent on him."

"That could be the problem. Rinse it off and call me back."

Even as we washed him, the baby's symptoms subsided. Thus began my investigation into insect repellents. The investigation yielded good---and horrific--news.

First, the bad news: The most common insect repellents can be disastrous to your health. They can, it appears, even be deadly.

According to Washington's National Capital Poison Center (NCPC), every year nearly 5,000 people report being poisoned by the active ingredient in popular repellents like Off and Cutter's. In all likelihood, thousands more also suffer reactions to the chemical but do not report them to their doctors.

The offending chemical, called "DEET" (diethyltoluamide), is unquestionably effective at repelling insects. Unfortunately, DEET also can poison some people.

The NCPC reports that nearly

three-fourths of all DEET victims are children under age six. Children might be more vulnerable because of their lower body weights, experts say.

Six cases of encephalopathy, or brain damage, have been reported in children ages one to six who used DEET. Three of those children died.

DEET poisons people because it's absorbed through the skin. The Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health estimates that up to 56 percent of all DEET applied to the skin is absorbed rapidly and enters the bloodstream. However, the kidneys and liver only partially eliminate it, and it can stay in the system for as long as two months. That's why repeated applications can be dangerous. "One three-year-old child who was sprayed with repellent every day for two weeks eventually suffered brain damage," says Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist Dr. Michael Watson. "And this child was using a relatively mild product that was only 15 percent DEET."

The most common reactions to DEET poisoning are nausea, brain swelling, cardiorespiratory arrest, scarring skin rashes, muscle cramps, seizures, irritability, and lethargy. Although children are most vulnerable, adults also face significant risks when they use large amounts of repellents regularly.

Some people appear to be particularly sensitive to DEET. The New England Journal of Medicine chronicles the case of one woman who reacted to DEET within 15 seconds of application. On one occasion, this woman was rushed unconscious to a hospital emergency room after merely touching a man who had sprayed himself with DEET.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children never be exposed to any product with more than 10 percent DEET. However, most brands contain more than 10 percent. Of the many DEET products available, 60 contain more than 90 percent DEET.

Because of alarming reports in the medical literature, New York state recently banned all products with more than 30 percent DEET. However, the ban was later overturned because of legal technicalities. That's the bad news.

The good news: The marketplace has recently responded to consumer concerns by producing nontoxic insect repellents.

The new products, which appear to be quite effective, contain such herbal oils as citronella, cedarwood, eucalyptus, and lemongrass. These oils smell pleasant to humans, but insects hate them.

Citronella is the most widely used repellent oil. Grown primarily in China, its pungent extract is especially powerful against mosquitoes and flies. Cedarwood has been used for many years to keep moths away from fabrics. Eucalyptus and lemongrass are broad-spectrum repellents with sharp, distinct odors that insects find objectionable.

"These oils have been used for centuries," says Mark Blumenthal, director of the American Botanical Council. "For example, the Latin word for pennyroyal is mentha pulegium, or 'flea mint.' The Romans used pennyroyal collars on dogs to repel fleas."

Why do certain plants repel bugs? "One theory," says Blumenthal, "is that these plants survived through natural selection because they were able to ward off insect predators."

There have been no adverse reactions to the natural repellents, according to the NCPC. Ironically, though, natural formulations can make no claims of safety and effectiveness because technically they're not classified as repellents. Government guidelines allow only DEET products to be called repellents.

"In spite of governmental claim restrictions," says Janette Grainger, coauthor of National Insect Repellents for Pets, People, & Plants, "I find the natural products to be very effective-no question about it. I just wish more people knew about them."

From a strictly personal standpoint, I'm delighted I discovered this category of natural formulations. My wife and I still have to spray our child with a repellent before we play outdoors with him.

But we no longer have to worry about it. I

More Information There are about a half-dozen natural insect repellents now on the market, though only a few are widely available. A random survey of retailers indicated the two that seem to be the most popular and widely respected are ZZZ-Away, and Safe-N-Free.

* ZZZ-AWAY: Quantum Inc. made a big splash in the natural repellent industry last year by marketing ZZZ-Away aggressively in health food stores. ZZZ-Away offers a broad-spectrum formulation of oils. Consumers reportedly like its odor and its "backwoods-strength" power.

* SAFE-N-FREE: Oriented toward the kiddy niche, this formulation is mild but carries a wide variety of oils. It comes in a cream form and is somewhat more expensive than other formulations.
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Title Annotation:includes related information; insect repellants
Author:Stauth, Cameron
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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