Flea-Control Products Threaten Pets and Children

NRDC Report Finds Serious Short- and Long-Term Hazards
From Certain Flea Collars, Dips, Powders

WASHINGTON, DC (November 1, 2000) - Millions of Americans are using flea- and tick-control products on their dogs and cats that could pose a serious health threat not only to their pets, but to themselves and their children. That is the conclusion of a new, groundbreaking report issued today by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). These pet products can expose adults and children to toxic pesticides at concentrations that exceed by 500 times -- 50,000 percent -- the safe levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency. The result: possible acute poisoning for pets and humans, and possible long-term health problems for children.

"The simple truth is that these products, even when used as directed, are not safe, and should not be on the market," says Dr. David Wallinga, M.D., co-author of the report. "Their use can pose serious risk for humans and pets. These include the possibility of acute poisoning, and of longer-term problems, like brain dysfunction or cancer."

Children, particularly toddlers, are at the greatest risk from these products, the report says. Children's developing bodies are more susceptible to toxic pesticides. Studies suggest these poisons, even at low levels of exposure, hamper a child's brain development, causing damage that might not be detectable for years. And children are more likely than adults to be exposed. They come in close contact with pets and areas in homes where poisons from pet products accumulate. They often get pesticide particles on their hands, and are likely to put their hands in their mouths.

The report found that the riskiest pet products contain a family of poisons called organophosphates, or OPs. OP pesticides, which are derived from nerve gas, interfere with nerve signal transmission. Since the neurological process they attack is common to insects, humans, dogs and cats, they can harm more than just fleas and ticks. Over a four-year period ending in 1996, poison control centers logged some 25,000 cases of children under age 6 who were exposed to OP pesticides. Hundreds of children were hospitalized.

Flea and tick products containing OPs are made by Alco, Americare, Beaphar, Double Duty, Ford's, Freedom Five, Happy Jack, Hartz, Hopkins, Kill-Ko, Protection, Rabon, Riverdale, Sergeant, Unicorn, Vet-Kem, Victory and Zema. The seven OPs used in these products (and listed on product labels) are: chlorpyrifos, diazinon, dichlorvos, malathion, naled, phosmet and tetrachlorvinphos.

Besides OPs, pet products often contain a second family of chemicals, called carbamates. The two most common carbamates in pet products are carbaryl and propoxur. Because they attack the same neurological process as OPs, the report says they are potentially harmful as well.

The Environmental Protection Agency only recently started investigating the safety of these pet products, especially for children. But it has taken no regulatory action to remove the products that its own risk assessments have determined are unsafe. The NRDC report is the first to put the individual risk assessments for pesticides from pet products side by side and publicize the numbers associated with these products, highlighting the overall risks to children.

"It wasn't until 1996 that Congress required EPA to explore the effect these poisons in flea and tick products have on children -- and only because they also are used on some foods," says Linda Greer, Ph.D., co-author of the report and director of NRDC's health and environment program. "EPA has been slow off the mark, and while it has made some progress in assessing the risks of individual poisons, it has never gotten around to calculating -- as required by law -- how the cumulative effect of the poisons harms our children. Our research indicates that if and when EPA complies with the law, it will have to ban these products."

Earlier this year, EPA's initial calculations resulted in an agreement with Dow Agrichemical, the maker of chlorpyrifos (under the trade name Dursban), to discontinue marketing the pesticide for all indoor uses. The agreement permitted stores to sell products already in stock, however, and as late as October, NRDC researchers were able to purchase a Dursban-based flea collar in a suburban Washington, D.C. drugstore.

"It's astonishing, when you think about it," Dr. Greer continues. "These products routinely deliver doses of poisons that exceed -- often greatly -- the levels EPA considers safe. And yet every day consumers are able to purchase these products right in their neighborhood grocery store. No doubt consumers assume that because they are available for sale, they must be safe. The facts show otherwise."

The report urges pet owners to use a variety of safer approaches to controlling fleas and ticks. In many cases, these pests can be controlled with simple, non-chemical measures, such as brushing pets regularly with a flea comb while inspecting for fleas, vacuuming carpets and furniture, and mowing frequently in areas where pets spend the most time outdoors. In other cases, these non-chemical measures may be combined with pet products that use "insect growth regulators," or IGRs. For cases of infestations, or when pets are allergic to flea bites and need immediate relief, newer products using fipronil (marketed as Frontline® or TopspotTM) or imidacloprid (marketed as Advantage®) are safer and effective.

In addition, the report offered a series of recommendations for pet owners:

  • Pet owners should avoid all OP-based pet products. In particular, pregnant women and families with children should cease using OP- or carbamate-based products immediately.
  • Children should never apply flea shampoos, dusts, dips, etc. containing OPs or carbamates to their pets. EPA has overlooked and underestimated the particular risks to children when evaluating the safety of these products for home use.

The report also offers a series of recommendations to industry and government:

  • Retailers should remove OP products from their shelves and educate their customers about the merits of safer alternatives.
  • EPA should move immediately to ban the use of pet pesticides containing OPs.
  • EPA also should consider banning pet products that contain carbamates, a class of insecticides closely related to OPs that share with them the same basic biological mechanism of attacking the nervous system.
  • EPA should take steps to better inform veterinarians, pet owners and the general public about safer alternatives for controlling fleas and ticks on pets.

The report, including a brief executive summary, has been published electronically, and is available online. A video news release on the report is available by calling 202-457-0884.