Pyrethrins and pyrethroids: You’ve probably never heard of these two pesticides, but you’ll want to know their names by heart, and soon.

That’s because a recent Center for Public Integrity exposé found that pyrethrins and pyrethroids, which are found in anything from flea collars for Fido to common bug repellants, have a scary history when it comes to safety issues. It says:

A Center review of the past 10 years’ worth of more than 90,000 adverse-reaction reports, filed with the EPA by pesticide manufacturers, found that pyrethrins and pyrethroids together accounted for more than 26 percent of all fatal, “major,” and “moderate” human incidents in the United States in 2007, up from 15 percent in 1998. Although the number of fatalities was low — about 20 from 2003 to 2007 — the amount of moderate and serious incidents attributed to the group — more than 6,000 — is significantly greater than any other class of insecticide.

As you can see, people have actually died from exposure to these chemicals, including one child in 2000 that died after her mom washed the child’s hair with lice treatment shampoo that contained pyrethrins. Yikes.

Though shocking, reports that these chemicals are harmful is news to most consumers because the EPA didn’t make the information very easy to get to (until now). Luckily, the Center was able to use the media’s best weapon — the Freedom of Information Act — to force the government to disclose documents it would otherwise prefer to keep secret.

Even more disturbing than the incidents themselves are the chemicals’ potential long-term effects, which are pretty much unknown as a result of EPA’s tendency to only look at chemicals’ immediate effects when determining whether a chemical is “safe.” Despite the EPA’s lack of knowledge, there are other studies that have looked into this issue, including one that found rats exposed to low doses of pyrethroids and an additional chemical, such as DEET or even common allergy medicine, developed brain damage after two months. To top it off, the Center claims that people with ragweed allergies and asthma may be particularly sensitive to pyrethrins and pyrethroids because pyrethrins (which are extracted from chrysanthemum plants) can trigger allergic reactions in some people.

Unfortunately, these insecticides are commonly found in household items like bug-repellant clothing, flea collars and shampoos, lawn-care products, carpet sprays and de-licing shampoos. Basically, if you have a can of Raid in your house, it probably has pyrethins or pyethroids listed in the ingredients.

If this gives you the creeps, you’re not alone. Debra Edwards, former director of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, was so taken aback by the Center’s reports that she said the EPA plans to examine the health effects of pyrethrins and pyrethroids sooner than originally intended.

In the meantime, people have three options to limit their exposure to these chemicals: educate themselves by looking at the Center’s pesticide incident database; find safer, more eco-friendly means of bug control; or, resign yourself to living alone in a bubble for the rest of your life.

Story by Jessica A. Knoblauch. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2008. The story was added to

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Put down that bug spray!
Flea collars, lawn-care products, carpet sprays, insect repellant and de-licing products could be harming more than just critters and pests.