Thursday, July 17, 2008

Natural, but more deadly

Robin is going to the Hitchcock Center's nature camp this week. They spend a lot of time outside looking at plants and critters, so the camp registration materials suggest applying sunscreen and bug repellent to campers every morning.

They further recommend the use of non-DEET ("natural") products, "so we don't hurt the creatures we might pick up."

That got my skeptical hackles up. "Natural" doesn't mean "safe," or "good," or "effective," despite what many people seem to think. It's what drives the whole faith-based (oops, I mean "Complementary and Alternative") medicine industry.

So could DEET residue left on your hand hurt a froggie that you pick up?

I dunno. And that's not really the relevant question; the real question is "might DEET hurt the froggie any more than any of the other things that are likely to be found on a six-year-old's hands?"

Like, oh, maybe the citronella oil that is the active ingredient in a lot of "natural" bug repellents. Mr. Google knows everything, and it turns out both DEET and citronella oil have been tested for toxicity on wildlife:

DEET is slightly toxic to trout, with a Mean Toxic dose of about 70,000 parts per billion.
Citronella oil is also slightly toxic to trout, with a Mean Toxic dose of about 17,000 parts per billion.

I'm citing the figures for trout not because I like the word "trout" (mmm... trout...) but because that's the only species I could find that had been studied for toxicity to citronella oil.

So-- the "natural" products are four times as toxic. And they're less effective, so you have to use more.

They do smell a little bit better than DEET, and by using a 100% organic, all-natural, fair-trade-certified bug spray you're telling your eco-friendly friends that you really care about the environment and your kids' health. Which is why I spray the kids with DEET as they leave the house, but put "naturapel" in their backpacks to reapply at camp. I don't want the camp counselors to think I'm trying to kill their frogs.

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