In South Florida, the insects are active year-round, but of course, along with the summer rains, it’s peak season for mosquitoes and other bugs that bite people.
While the thought of applying repellent might seem unappealing, it’s better than a bite from an insect that might be carrying a serious disease, not to mention the nasty itching from the bite.
Mosquitoes can carry West Nile virus, and ticks can transmit Lyme disease.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the number of cases of Lyme disease has more than doubled during the past 15 years, with more than 24,000 confirmed reports in 2011. Lyme disease cases are concentrated in 13 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states.
West Nile virus, first recorded in the United States in 1999, infected more than 5,600 people last year. Since 1999, the CDC has counted 37,088 cases of West Nile virus and 1,549 related deaths. West Nile cases have been found in almost every state. August is the peak month.
It’s difficult to know which repellents do the job safely, but researchers at Environmental Working Group spent 18 months reviewing the data for chemicals in virtually every bug repellent for sale in the United States.
Although they found that nothing is completely safe, some repellents are effective and relatively low in toxicity, provided you take precautions when using them, particularly on children. Use products in lotion, pump or towelette form.
EWG released the results recently and highlighted four U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-registered and CDC-approved ingredients as top picks:
• Oil of lemon eucalyptus or its synthetic derivative, PMD
No single product is best for everyone in every situation, but EWG’s researchers concluded that these four chemicals can provide long-lasting protection from ticks, mosquitoes and other bugs. When used properly, each poses relatively few health concerns.
Though DEET has been much maligned, and in rare cases intense doses have been linked to nervous system impairment, an extensive review of the scientific literature found few reports of serious health hazards when the chemical was used sparingly, as the maker’s instructions specify, EWG said.
Picking the best repellent for each situation can be complicated. More intense concentrations of repellent chemicals don’t necessarily do the job when it counts. Repellents don’t need to contain 100 percent DEET to deter pests. Consumers should avoid anything stronger than 30 percent DEET.
EWG staffers who reviewed available scientific literature on botanical bug repellents could recommend only one — oil of lemon eucalyptus/PMD, a processed form of the oil of the lemon eucalyptus tree native to Australia. This product has undergone efficacy and safety testing and is also registered with the EPA.
The EPA does not require most other botanicals to undergo registration and testing for effectiveness or safety. Consequently, EWG staffers found, there is little data to confirm or contradict the products’ advertising claims. Consumers also should be aware that many botanical bug repellents contain allergens.
EWG advises consumers that when it comes to bug-borne diseases, prevention is key. Repellents should not be the first choice for protection from bug bites, but selecting the appropriate repellent can be important for people in high-risk places.
Here’s a list of common brands that contain the recommended chemicals:
• Picaridin: Avon Skin-So-Soft bug Guard Plus Picaridin, Cutter, Cutter Advanced, Natrapel 8-hour, OFF! Active, OFF! FamilyCare, Walgreens Light & Clean.
• IR3535: Coleman Skin Smart.
• DEET: Bug Off, Buzz Off, Cutter, OFF! Active, OFF! FamilyCare, OFF! Deep Woods, Repel, Ultrathon.
• Oil of lemon eucalyptus with enhanced PMD concentration: Coleman Botanicals, Citrapel, Fite Bite, Repel Essential.
• PMD: OFF! Botanicals.
Repellents should be a last choice, EWG advises. Give bugs a smaller target by covering up with light-colored clothing, long-sleeved shirts and bandannas. When walking in tall grass or brush, tuck pants into socks.
Use nets or fans over outdoor eating areas and place nets over strollers and baby carriers.
Drain standing water around your home that may have collected in flower pots or other items.
Avoid expensive bug zappers, which EWG says are ineffective and may attract more mosquitoes and kill beneficial insects.
EWG also advises against using outdoor ”fogger” insecticides because they are more toxic than skin repellents.