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Jul 032009

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

It comes up every summer, that pesty green quandary: Should you use strong chemicals like DEET to fend off the mosquitoes and ticks that can transmit the insidious Lyme Disease and the potentially deadly West Nile Virus?

We want to use less toxic protection, formulas that are based on natural ingredients or at least those that haven’t been shown to cause neurological damage (albeit in rare cases). Ironically, using DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) to protect against West Nile forces you to choose between potential rare neurological side effects. Will you overreact to DEET or be the unlucky one whose case of West Nile runs amok, producing neurological manifestations? Which raises the question — what are the odds?

Turns out you are more likely to get a severe case of West Nile than you are to have a bad reaction to DEET (and you can control that possibility with careful application). The Centers for Disease Control reports that there were 44 fatalities caused by West Nile in the US in 2008 from among the 687 cases in which the virus  mushroomed into encephalitis or meningitis (meaning it induced swelling in the brain or spinal cord.)

So protecting oneself against mosquitoes is paramount. Yes, the issue can be slippery as citronella oil. There are many safer, natural compounds that repel mosquitoes (more on that in a minute). We don’t want to swim in chemicals. But we don’t want the July 4th barbie to wrap up in the ER either.

In the end, I have a hard time arguing against the best protection available. DEET does get the job done. Consumer Reports has shown it to be effective. The Centers for Disease Control endorses it (but notes in a fact sheet that rare cases of over exposure have resulted in kids having “seizures or brain damage”). The American Academy of Pediatrics views its use on little children older than two months favorably, noting that it is effective for about two hours at a 10 percent concentration, though it also cautions that DEET should be applied “sparingly on exposed skin” and not used under clothing, among other precautions.

I’m no expert, but here’s my compromise: When I send a kid (or myself) into mosquito territory, I use a first line of defense of clothing, longer sleeves, socks, pants. Conveniently, this gives me alternative surfaces on which to spray DEET, which minimizes its skin contact. If we’re talking woods and high grass, I will even apply a bit of a DEET product directly to pulse points (wrists and necks). Then I liberally spray an alternative product that’s considered skin safe (and contains a proven deterrent like lemon eucalyptus oil or soybean oil) on any other exposed skin, such as the back of necks, forearms, knees and calves.

I feel like this is the best of both worlds, though I know this is a solution that will satisfy neither those opposed to DEET or DEET boosters like the trade group, Consumer Specialty Products Association, which recently sent an email reminding us of DEET’S virtues. Still, it works for me, the Scout and the Nature Girl.

Speaking of chemicals, we have found that one of the best ways to reduce our mosquito risk is to cut back on chemicals in other ways. Our yard is pesticide-free and planted with mainly native plants, which has promoted a proliferation of beneficial bugs that eat mosquitoes, such as dragon flies. It’s a good argument for doing all we can to keep birds and bats around too.

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