EPA Continues to Lag in Protecting Kids & Pets from Toxic Flea Collars

 For the past couple years, I’ve been working to protect the health of pets and their families by fighting to get dangerous chemicals out of pet products, like flea collars. But last week, my work suddenly became more personal – I now have a wiggly happy dog of my own. And this new addition to my family coincides with another round of action in the national effort to get toxic pet products off store shelves: NRDC today provided new information in a petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We are asking them to ban the neurotoxic and cancer-causing pesticide propoxur from pet products across the country.

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Photo:  Introducing my new dog.

Last summer, EPA quietly conducted a risk assessment of flea collars with propoxur and found that normal use of these collars on pets could pose significant health risks to children.   Despite these findings, EPA has still not taken any action six months after their risk assessment, and we have since discovered that EPA’s assessment had major flaws that seriously underestimate the health risks from these products. In other words, these flea collars are even more dangerous than previously believed.

NRDC first brought this problem to EPA’s attention in April 2009 when we completed a scientific study, and filed a petition (which remains unanswered) to remove propoxur from pet products. And NRDC won a lawsuit in California last month that requires all flea collars with propoxur to carry warning labels stating the products contain a chemical that is known to cause cancer. Despite all of this and EPA’s own new evidence, it has as of yet failed to ban the use of this pesticide, and these dangerous collars remain on the shelves. 

Flea collars are designed to coat the dog or cat’s fur with a chemical residue that kills the fleas.  Unfortunately, the residue is not just toxic to fleas but can also be harmful to people and pets.  The pesticide propoxur is toxic to the nervous system and can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, wheezing, sweating and tearing eyes. Severe poisoning can cause muscle twitching, seizures, respiratory paralysis and even death. And as I mentioned, it is a known carcinogen. Young children are particularly susceptible to these pesticides' effects because their nervous system and brain are still developing, and their ability to metabolize these chemicals is weaker than that of adults. In addition, kids often put their hands in their mouths after petting an animal, and so are more likely to ingest the hazardous residues.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, while EPA’s new risk assessment found these products are harmful for children, they still grossly underestimated just how dangerous they are: 

  • Their risk assessment is based on the ridiculous assumption that young children only put their hands in their mouth once a day while playing with a pet, and only with three fingers. These assumptions are not supported by scientific studies or even previous EPA risk assessments. (Not to mention, anyone who has kids and pets would beg to differ.)
  • EPA ignored the potential for exposure to pesticide residue through the skin, despite studies that show it can readily be absorbed this way as well.
  • EPA’s risk assessment looked at some health risks, but failed to consider cancer risks, even though the chemical is a known carcinogen.

In light of this, I decided to reanalyze EPA’s risk assessment, this time using more realistic and scientifically justifiable assumptions. I found a level of exposure about 55 times higher than what EPA estimated. Not only is this level of exposure dangerous to the developing brain of a young child, I calculated that for every ten thousand people using these products, approximately 5 of them would be projected to get cancer from long-term exposure. 

I also took a look at a study by one of the manufacturers of these collars that claimed to refute EPA’s risk assessment and demonstrate that their collars are safe.  However, their study used flawed assumptions about how often a toddler puts their hand in their mouth and also omitted exposures through the skin. When I corrected these flaws, even the manufacturer’s numbers result in unsafe exposures for children.

In short: Two years ago, NRDC determined flea and tick collars with a cancer-causing and neurotoxic pesticide are unsafe for children and pets. Now, a new EPA study and the manufacturers own numbers back that up – so why are these toxic flea collars still for sale?

The evidence just keeps piling up that these products are too toxic to be on the market. Dogs, cats and their human families are relying on EPA to protect them from dangerous chemicals in common flea collars on the shelves at places like PetSmart and PETCO. What we need now is for EPA to take action and ban this chemical from pet products.

Join us in telling EPA it’s unacceptable to knowingly keep these toxic products on the shelves, and they must protect the health of our pets and families from toxic flea collars. Click here to send them a letter.

Until last week, my trips to the pet store were merely for research, but now I am perusing the pet store isles with a new purpose. Thanks for helping me work toward the day when we can trust that the products on the pet store shelves are safe and the only reason I have to go to a pet store is to get treats for my dog.

Take your pet & family’s safety into your own hands: Learn more about safer methods of flea and tick control at www.greenpaws.org. While you’re there, be sure to check out our product guide, which ranks more than 125 flea & tick products, categorizing them by the level of their potential health threat.  


Some Flea collars that contain propoxur include:

  • Adam’s brand “Plus” collars
  • Bio Spot brand collars
  • Sentry brand “Dual Action” collars
  • Sergeant’s brand “Sendran” collars
  • Sergeant’s brand “Triple Protection” collars
  • Vet Kem brand “Tick Away” collars
  • Zodiac collars

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About the Authors

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

Senior Scientist, Health and Environment program

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