NRDC's This Green Life
A Journal of Sorts
MAY 2006 / Links updated 2010

There's a funny kind of inconsistency at work in America today. While interest in pesticide-free food has led to a stunning 20 percent annual growth rate in the organic food market, most Americans continue to use pesticides in and around their homes. In all likelihood, that includes you.

Dalmatian with gas mask I've written elsewhere about the dangers of putting pesticides on your lawn, both to your own health and the environment at large. Here, I'd like to address the risks associated with putting flea and tick control products on your pets.

If you've never thought of these products as pesticides, think again: many contain the same scary bug-killers that go on "conventional" fruits and vegetables. Dousing your pets with them can expose the animals and your family to poisoning, as well as to serious, long-term health problems.

Families with children have special reason for concern. Children's habit of putting their hands in their mouths puts them at greater risk than adults. So does the fact that their systems are still developing. In addition, their small size means that their relative exposure, pound for pound, is higher.

The most dangerous types of pesticides are organophosphates and carbamates -- nerve poisons that should be avoided completely. (See "What to blacklist" in the sidebar on the right for a list of their names.) NRDC has been working since 2000 to get them barred from household and pet products and has so far succeeded with two of the worst.

Even products with "safer" ingredients carry health risks for people and animals. For instance, Hartz Flea and Tick Drops for Cats and Kittens, with the active ingredient, phenothrin, was recently cancelled because it caused hair loss, salivation, tremors and death in cats. Yet phenothrin, a synthetic form of a substance found in chrysanthemums, was once considered one of the less toxic pesticides.

Of course, fleas and ticks can be a health problem in their own right, but that doesn't mean an all-out chemical assault is necessary. Instead, you can try these simple physical prevention procedures:

1) Keep the grass on your lawn short.

2) Vacuum thoroughly and often, and dispose of the vacuum bag afterwards in a sealed plastic bag so that the trapped fleas cannot escape back into the house. (This will also help with other pests, such as moths.)

3) Limit the places your pets can sleep and wash their bedding in hot water weekly.

4) Keep pets out of bedrooms and hard-to-clean rooms where fleas would be a problem.

5) Bathe them every couple of weeks in soapy water.

6) Brush them regularly and inspect them for parasites.

7) Consider keeping cats indoors (which not only reduces the chance of fleas and ticks, but car accidents and disease) and only allowing dogs to roam in areas where fleas can be controlled.

If you spot a tick, remove it with tweezers. Grasp it as close to the skin as possible and pull it out with a slow, smooth motion, then drop it in a jar of alcohol or flush it down the toilet. Never use a match to burn it out, apply substances to help pull it out, or twist or turn it.

If you spot a flea, comb your pet with a flea comb to remove any others that might be there and drop them in soapy water. Then wash your pet's bedding in hot water and vacuum all the rooms where your pet spends time, including furniture. Comb your pet daily for the next few days to make sure a problem isn't developing and keep vacuuming.

Should you develop a serious flea infestation and need to use chemicals, the best choices are flea pills, such as Program and Sentinel. These products contain insect growth regulators that keep flea eggs from hatching. Because they are given to pets internally, they leave no residue on the fur. There are also spot-ons and flea collars based on insect growth regulators, such as Precor (methoprene), Nylar (pyroproxyfen) and Program (lufenuron). These products are safer and more effective than the traditional dusts, sprays, and collars which, until a few years ago, were the only choices for pet owners.

Contrary to what the products claim, there is no magic bullet -- at least none that is entirely safe. So keep calm, retain your sense of humor and focus on prevention first.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

If you do choose to use pesticides:

  • Consult your veterinarian as to which and how much.
  • Always read the label carefully and follow instructions exactly.
  • Never apply more than the recommended dose.
  • Never use a product intended for one type of animal on another.
  • Do not use on very young, old, ill or pregnant animals except on a vet's advice.

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Family photos
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.

Math lessons. Pesticide exposure adds up. A little phosmet on your dog is bad enough, but when you're also exposed to phosmet on your apples, you may be getting more than you bargained for. The possible synergistic effects of different pesticides may increase your risk.

Little girl kissing cat
Risky behavior? Could be, if there are pesticides on this kitty.


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Children's Vulnerability to Toxins in the Environment

Are "Spot-on" Flea Killers Safe?

Least Toxic Control of Fleas

Managing Fleas without Poisons

Interactive Pesticide Product Label

Inert or "Other" Ingredients

Animal Poison Control Center

What to blacklist. In general, avoid any flea products that come as "bombs" or sprays. Avoid all products containing dichlorvos, phosmet, naled, tetrachlorvinphos, malathion, diazinon and chlorpyrifos, which are dangerous organophosphates. The last two have been banned from new pet products, but were widely used a short while ago and may be in old products stored in your home. Carbamates, such as carbaryl and propoxur, should also go on your blacklist.

Alien invader (flea) enlarged.

Active vs. inert. It would be natural to assume that the "active" ingredients listed on pesticide labels are the dangerous chemicals you should be aware of, while the "inert" or "other" ingredients are the innocuous substances you can safely ignore, but what's natural doesn't pertain to the world of pesticides. By regulatory fiat, "active" denotes ingredients targeting the pest at issue, while "inert" and "other" refer to everything else used to make the mixture work. In fact, these ingredients are occasionally even more toxic than the active ones.

Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.

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