Fleas, and Ticks, and Neurotoxins! Oh My!

When I think of man’s best friend, I evoke a childhood of chasing after wagging, fuzzy tails and curling up on the couch nestled up with a loyal pal.  But after my most recent project, I wonder what kinds of toxic chemicals might also be in that bundle of pets and tots.  Flea control is one of the few times we bring toxic chemicals into our homes on purpose, but we may not be aware of how dangerous many of these chemicals are.  Often, these pesticides, which are designed to be toxic to the nervous system of the pest, also interrupt critical functioning of the human nervous system.  Over the years, NRDC has helped remove six of the most toxic chemicals from these products, and today, EPA announced that another dangerous pesticide will be leaving the market… eventually.

Propoxur, the chemical in many flea collars, is part of a family of chemicals known to be toxic to the human nervous system, has long been considered a "probable human carcinogen" by EPA, and is listed by the State of California as known to cause cancer in humans.  But it wasn’t until today that EPA finalized a deal with the manufacturers to stop selling flea collars that pose an unacceptable risk to children’s health.  And in effect, they’ll remain on the market for several more years because of the negotiated phase-out process.  If EPA decided these products are too dangerous for kids, why aren’t they recalling them from the market now?

Propoxur isn’t the only dangerous pesticide being applied to pets. Tetrachlorvinphos (TCVP) is the only remaining organophosphate pesticide found in stores – NRDC helped remove the other six from the market, one by one, from 2000 through 2006.  Organophosphates, including TCVP, are neurotoxins and are particularly dangerous for developing brains of kids. 

It might be tempting to purchase these products that are marketed as 7 months of flea and tick control for $7, but the warning statements in the fine print should be headed.  The boxes all say: “Caution: Do not let children play with this collar” and one warning continues, “If product gets on skin or clothing take off contaminated clothing, rinse skin immediately with plenty of water for 15-20 minutes,” and another says, “do not get dust or collar in mouth or eyes… wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling collar.” But when they pet and play with their animals, how do you prevent kids from coming into contact with the pesticide dust the collar is designed to spread around? The only solution I have is to avoid these products and chemicals in the first place and choose safer alternatives.

In preparation for spring, I took on the task of cleaning up our website, including updating our Green Paws Flea Control Product Directory.  I scoured the e-shelves of pet supply stores, eliminating old products, adding new ones and inspecting the fine print for ingredients.  It is easy to become overwhelmed by the options on the shelf – especially if the product you bought last year has been re-formulated and renamed – but these products differ in more than their price and packaging. 

As consumers, we assume that if a product is on the shelf, it must be safe.  However, our chemical regulation system in the US is broken and many of these chemicals have not been tested or assessed for safety before they end up in our shopping baskets. 

Our product directory provides a description of the chemicals in each product, toxicity of the chemical, risk level, and safer alternatives.  When facing a flea or tick problem, keep these alternatives in mind:

  • Wash bedding in hot, soapy water once a week.
  • Vacuum the home once a week. Empty the vacuum bag and dispose its contents.
  • Comb daily with a fine-toothed flea comb and rinse the comb teeth in hot, soapy water between strokes.
  • Look for repellent sprays made with essential oils of lemongrass, cedarwood, peppermint, rosemary or thyme.
  • For severe problems that require chemical intervention, look for lower risk products such as those using Pyriproxyfen, Nitenpyram, Spinosad, S-Methoprene, or Lufenuron as the active ingredient. 
  • For more tips on safer flea and tick management, see How to Control Fleas and Ticks Without Chemicals.


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