Are Pesticides Killing Us, Too?
The annual plague of insects and other bugs has descended on us folks up North. For those of you in sunny climates, it lasts all year round. In these parts, the year’s heavy rainfall means the mosquito population will be big enough to make it the ‘state bird’ in at least half the states.
And it’s not just mosquitoes. You have to add the many other pests known to man — fleas, cockroaches, yellow jackets, grubs… you name it.
In self defense, many of us will call a pest control company or pay a visit to the store to load up on products designed to get rid of these unwanted invaders.
Problem is… we could be trading one problem for another. Keep reading to find out what I mean…
How a Doctor Reversed Her Husband’s
If you’ve ever known anyone with Alzheimer’s disease, you know how heart-breaking it can be. Not only does it destroy a person’s mental abilities and dignity … but it wipes out the person’s very personality, leaving behind a mere shell of a human being. The body is there for you to see, but the person you know and love no longer exists.
That’s exactly what happened to my colleague Dr. Mary Newport and her husband Steve. As Mary describes it, “I was watching my husband of 36 years fade away.”
In Mary’s words, it was “Strange to have no short-term memory and yet the information was filed somewhere in his brain. I knew he was locked up in there somewhere, if only there was a key to open up the areas of his brain that he didn’t have access to.”
Little did Mary know that she would soon find that very key.
‘Safe’ pest control treatments (that aren’t)…
Pesticides come in so many names and varieties it’s mind-boggling to sort them all out.
For now, I’m going to focus on one of the most common ingredients in use today, along with its common synergist. Many people rely on it as ‘safe’ — and it is, compared to DEET, Diazinon, Dursban, Sevin and Orthene.
Pyrethrum is a natural material made from the chrysanthemum… and pyrethrins are the six insecticide compounds found in pyrethrum. A pyrethroid is a manmade chemical compound similar to natural chemical pyrethrins.
Pyrethrins and pyrethroids are ingredients in a staggering 3,500 registered products.
They are widely used in and around millions of homes — on pets, in mosquito control, and on lawns. They’re used to kill ticks and fleas, cockroaches, and are in home and garden sprays and pet shampoos. Pyrethroids are sold as commercial pesticides used to control insects on farms, in homes, communities, restaurants, hospitals, schools… and also as a topical head lice treatment.
“Bug bombs” — pesticides with aerosol propellants releasing all their contents at once to fumigate an area — are marketed for use in homes and apartments to control roaches and fleas.
Use of pyrethrins and pyrethroids has increased during the past decade with the declining use of organophosphate pesticides.
They alter nerve function, causing paralysis in target insect pests, ending in death.
To simplify things, I’ll call them all pyrethrins for the rest of this article.
There are four ways you’re exposed to pyrethrins:
b) Skin contact
c) Through your eyes
You also need to realize… when you use pyrethrins, you’re getting more than ‘just’ pyrethrins. Often, you’re also getting a powerful synergist called Piperonyl Butoxide (PBO) — added to make the active ingredients even more powerful (read: toxic). PBO is especially common in aerosols. Such products may contain five to ten times as much PBO as pesticide.1
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pyrethrins cause more insecticide poisoning incidents than any other class of insecticides except organophosphates. Symptoms may include2:
4. Skin or eye irritation and inflammation
5. Numb tongue and lips
7. Muscular fibrillation
8. Respiratory problems, including life-threatening asthma attacks
9. Death, including heart failure
Note: You are at substantially higher risk of symptoms if you have pre-existing respiratory problems (allergies and asthma) — and also if you have multiple sclerosis.
An old story from the Jewish News, Detroit, dated February 6, 1998, illustrates just how dangerous pyrethrins can be to asthmatics…
Marcy Trice remembers the day her life changed forever. She was a 35-year-old limited licensed psychologist working with chronically ill patients at Detroit Receiving Hospital. Early on that August day in 1989, an insecticide (poison) company sprayed her office because of a bug problem. When Trice returned later, she got some of the chemical mist on her hands. She started to fall asleep at her desk. Her asthmatic condition, previously under control, dramatically worsened. The insecticide was pyrethrin, made from powdered flowers of the chrysanthemum family.
Poison control told Trice to get tested and warned her she could develop symptoms months later. She did: headaches, frequent falling, kidney problems, memory lapses, fatigue.
Unknown to Trice, another office where she worked in Bloomfield Hills was periodically sprayed. Her illness grew worse, and she stopped working in 1994. Trice has been diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a chronic condition marked by heightened sensitivity to many different chemicals.
Worth noting: WD40, a household lubricant, is also extremely dangerous when you’re exposed to it at the same time as pyrethrin.
Toxic to animals, too…
Pyrethrins are not exactly harmless for animals, either.
Some lab animals experience anemia when exposed to the chemcials through eating, injection, or breathing.
Experiments with dairy cows suggest that nursing mothers exposed to pyrethrins can pass them on to their children. Plus, pyrethrins disrupt the normal functioning of sex hormones.
Pyrethrins are extremely toxic to honeybees, fish and other aquatic animals, posing a potential threat to our food supply.
They’re dangerous for cats too. A cat’s liver is incapable of breaking down pyrethrins. Watch what flea and tick products you use.
But do pyrethrins cause cancer?
The EPA classified pyrethrins as “likely to be a human carcinogen by the oral route”, based on increased frequency of several cancers in rats — including3:
1. Liver cancer in females
2. Lung cancer in males
3. Thyroid tumors (both genders)
Farmers exposed to pyrethrins for livestock pest control have nearly four times the risk of leukemia.4
Several studies suggest that females are at greater overall cancer risk from pyrethrin exposure than men, because pyrethrins tend to accumulate within body fat. Females in general have twice the body fat of men. Tests showed that the median oral dose it took to kill female rats was less than half the dose required to kill males.5
Risks you wouldn’t expect
from an ‘inert’ ingredient
Remember, it’s not just pyrethrins. It’s that other chemical, PBO, too. The EPA rates PBO as one of the most commonly used ingredients in insecticides, now found in approximately 1600 to 1700 registered pest control products.6PBOs are sometimes listed as an active ingredient, but can also be considered an inert ingredient, so not required to be listed.7 When listed, it could be called any of these names (and probably others):
d) CAS Reg. No. 51-03-6
A study of pregnant women from northern Manhattan and the Bronx found PBO in the air of 80% of their homes — suggesting how far-reaching its use is.
Residues are regularly found on these “dirty dozen” foods, plus others…
10. Bell peppers
Another reason to fork over the extra dough for organic foods, huh? The EPA claims that your dietary food risk is very low… but others disagree.
PBOs slow the breakdown of toxic pyrethrins, keeping them toxic for much longer. My guess is, PBOs will do the same thing in your body.
Overdoses in animals are linked to hyper-excitability, unsteadiness, coma, seizures, and brain damage. Hemorrhages in the digestive tract, especially in the large intestine, have caused rat deaths.
Other long-term changes include liver disease, kidney changes, anemia, loss of muscle coordination, and abdominal swelling. Sounds like enough to scare me off…
But again, is PBO “officially” carcinogenic? Well yes, the EPA has named it a group C carcinogen — “a possible human carcinogen”… based only on animal studies. Several studies link it to liver cancer at high doses… others link it to thyroid cancer.8
They say that PBO does not cause genetic damage — but there is by no means a clear consensus on that, as some studies do show genetic damage, including a study demonstrating gene mutation in mouse lymphoma cells.
In addition, PBO weakens your immune system, affects reproductive function and increases both birth defects and fetal death, and is a known neurotoxin causing behavioral changes. It’s also linked to intestinal ulcers, bleeding, liver and kidney damage… and more. Some of these risks appear to be downplayed by the EPA.
“But, the EPA would tell us
if it was dangerous… wouldn’t they?”
I’d like to think so…
But I did see one reference about the EPA withholding information from the public for two years after they determined pyrethrins were a possible carcinogen. Finally the information came out in a lawsuit.9
Although the EPA has access to published articles and independent studies, they rarely use these sources to make a risk assessment. Generally they use only data submitted by the product manufacturers.10 Could be honest science, be I’m skeptical about that…
For example, a comprehensive review of published articles found 63 pesticides that interfere with the thyroid system. But to date, EPA has never restricted a pesticide for thyroid issues.
To add to the potential problems…
Although pyrethrins are said to have a short half life in the sunshine, they’re often applied inside of buildings, where residue can stay potent for a long time.
Following indoor treatments, pyrethrins have persisted up to 2 1/2 months in carpet dust.
One study found PBO persisted for at least 2 weeks on toys and in dust in a kindergarten, following a treatment to control cockroaches.11
To add insult to injury, there are indications that pests are becoming resistant to pyrethrins. A January 20, 2011 story in the Wall Street Journal tells of an Ohio State University study showing that bed bugs now have the ability to survive in the presence of pyrethrins.12, 13
It’s a tough challenge to avoid all sources of pyrethrin and PBO, precisely because they’re used all over the place by practically everybody. It’s conceivable they’re used in almost every building you visit on a regular basis… schools and universities, playgrounds and ball fields, golf courses, farms, your workplace, office buildings, restaurants, apartment buildings, and more.
But do take control where you can.
10 ways to slash your risk…
At least you can choose healthier options in your own backyard and home. Here are ten practical tips to get you started…
1. Learn to read labels and ask questions. Beware the ‘inert’ ingredients. The term is nothing more than a dodge for pesticide manufacturers. If you hire others for your yard care, ask a few questions. Find out what pesticides they plan to apply. Ask to see labels. Be snoopy. It’s your life and your family’s at stake.
2. Buy organic food. If you buy from a local organic farmer, ask what they use to control bugs. Request the name of the active ingredient. Pyrethrum (the “natural” version) may still use synergists like PBO that are anything BUT natural. Be wary. Labels may not mean what you think they do. Some companies are selling pyrethrum/diatomaceous earth/PBO products and calling them “organic”.
PBO is also showing up in orange oil and neem products, and sold as organic. Don’t be fooled…
3. Spray garlic-based mosquito deterrents on your shrubs and grassy areas instead of using poisons. Besides being better for you, they have the benefit of not killing “good” insects the way pyrethrins do.
4. Find natural flea and tick treatments for your pets. There are many available online.
5. Wash your pet’s bedding in hot, soapy water once a week.
6. Vacuum your home once a week. Empty the bag and dispose of its contents. Keep clutter under control.
7. Comb your dog daily with a fine-tooth flea comb, and rinse in hot, soapy water between strokes.
8. Look for repellants made from the essential oils of lemongrass, cedarwood, peppermint, rosemary, or thyme.
9. Use flowers that deter insects in and around your home and garden.
10. Remove standing water near your home to prevent mosquitoes from breeding there.
If all this seems like a lot of work, remember the proverb, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Not only does it apply to your health, but for preventing the insect surges that will make you “desperate” to use pyrethrins and PBOs.
Sometimes it takes decades of people getting sick before a product’s dangers are “discovered” and it’s finally removed from the market. In the meantime, you may need to become your own personal “Environmental Protection Agency”.