The chemical, N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide, or DEET, was used as a bug deterrent for soldiers serving in the jungles of Vietnam. Now commercially available, DEET is coming under scrutiny for causing acute toxicity, allergic reactions, scarring, and even brain swelling that leads to death.
DEET's number one manufacturer, Morflex Inc., estimates that over 200 million people now use the war-time chemical in their household bug repellents.
Agent Orange herbicides more readily absorbed in the presence of DEET
Herbicide 2,4-D, one of the main components of Agent Orange, acts as an endocrine disrupter in humans. 2,4-D is more readily absorbed by the body in the presence of DEET. It was the chemical 2,4,5-T that led to the banning of Agent Orange, but it is DEET that makes Agent Orange more pervasive in the human body.
DEET passes through placenta of rabbits, pervasive in US water streamsIn EPA field tests, DEET was found at small concentrations in 75 percent of water streams tested in the US. The chemical breaks down in sunlight but breaks down very slowly in soil. On tests involving rabbits, DEET entered the mammal's skin and even passed through the placenta of the pregnant rabbits!
The American Academy of Pediatrics is concerned about DEET being used on children and warns parents not to expose young ones less than two months old to the chemical.
DEET's adverse reactions include brain swelling that leads to death
The National Institutes of Health warns that even adults, especially military personal and game wardens, can develop severe skin reactions including blisters, burning and scars. Long term use in these careers may elicit mood changes and insomnia.
In some documented cases, DEET has caused death after eliciting certain adverse reactions. The EPA warns that DEET can cause acute liver problems and brain swelling in individuals with ammonia metabolism problems. In these urea cycle disorders, which occur in about 1 in 20,000 births, an individual's brain may swell when exposed to DEET, causing death.
Seven companies distribute more than 225 DEET products in AmericaIn the US, there are at least 225 products containing DEET. Just seven companies pump the market full of the chemical, with SC Johnson, Cutter, Sawyer, and Ultrathon leading the way. The 225 bug sprays are really a corporate illusion of choice that mass distributes the same toxic chemical. The good news is - there are other safe options for bug deterrents that do not pose a threat to human health.
Should DEET be commercially available?While avoiding mosquito borne diseases like Lyme's and malaria is important, is a toxic chemical like DEET the answer? How might the natural essential oils of lemon eucalyptus, neem, cedar, and citronella be more effective and safer? These plant oils can be used at higher concentrations without posing life threatening reactions.
The Public Health Agency of Canada has banned combinations of sunscreen containing DEET and restricts bug spray products from containing more than 30 percent DEET.
Should DEET be commercially available at high concentrations when it has been documented for causing adverse reactions that lead to death? Are DEET-containing products ethical at all?
Sources for this article include:
Briassoulis, G., et al. 2001. "Toxic encephalopathy associated with use of DEET insect repellents: a case analysis of its toxicity in children." Hum. Exp. Toxicol. 20(1):8-14.