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No More Poisonous Pets: EPA's Delay on Flea Collars Threatens Our Kids

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

Posted February 6, 2014 in Health and the Environment

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Have you ever watched a kid around a dog or cat? It is often a love and cuddle fest. They press their small faces into the pet’s fur; their arms encircle the pet in long hugs; their hands stroke, grab and touch the pet all over and they like to hang out where the pets are.  Unfortunately, these wonderful interactions, which bring so much joy to kids and pets, can be toxic.  Despite piles of evidence that two pesticides commonly used in flea collars, propoxur and tetrachlorvinphos (TCVP), harm kids’ brains, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to allow them to be on the market.  Today, we at NRDC, are standing up for pet-loving kids across the country and suing EPA to gain the health protections every family deserves.Dog and baby.jpg

Flea collars are designed to spread pesticides on the fur of pets so that the chemical can kill the fleas.  Unfortunately, this also makes for a very effective way to expose kids to these same toxic chemicals.  When kids play with a pet wearing a flea collar, they can get the pesticide on their hands and skin.  Some of the pesticide is absorbed directly through the skin and a portion can also be ingested when the child puts their hand in their mouth.  The pesticide can also linger on everyday home surfaces including bedding, furniture, or carpets that both kids and pets come into contact with and pesticide laden hands can contaminate toys or food that kids put in their mouth or eat.  Young kids are especially at risk from pesticides used in flea collars. One, they can spend a lot of time touching their pet; two, they crawl around touching lots of surfaces that can be contaminated with pesticide that came off the flea collar; three, they are constantly putting their hands (and other stuff) in their mouths; and lastly but perhaps most importantly, because their brains and bodies are rapidly developing, they are very susceptible to the toxic effects of pesticides – even in small amounts.

NRDC has been working for many, many years to make flea control products, and other forms of pest control used in the home, safe for kids.  Although progress has been made- in that the majority of the most neurotoxic pesticides have been banned, or severely restricted, for use in the home - propoxur and TCVP in flea collars have been overlooked and continue to pose a serious health threat.  In November of 2007 and April of 2009, we brought this oversight to the attention of the EPA and filed formal petitions seeking a ban on pet uses of the pesticides because of the risks to kids.  Unfortunately, all these years later, EPA has still not responded to those petitions and we have to go to court to get action to protect families. 

As a public health scientist, I am alarmed that these pesticides are still allowed to be used around kids despite the enormous evidence of the harm they can cause.  In our reports, Poisons on Pets I and II, we highlight the threats posed by propoxur and TCVP laden flea collars and the faulty EPA evaluations which have allowed them to remain on the market.  In 2010, EPA’s own assessment of flea collars with propoxur found that they could result in unsafe exposures.  Since then, the scientific evidence of the dangers the pesticides pose has increased. Meanwhile, EPA continues to be plagued by paralysis, ignoring the science and evidence that pesticides on flea collars can pose dangers in our home. 

Tetrachlorvinphos (TCVP)

TCVP is part of a class of pesticides called organophosphates that act similarly in the body, particularly harming the nervous system.  In recent years, multiple studies have documented that prenatal and early- life exposure to organophosphates can impair children’s neurological development at levels below what can cause clinical symptoms of poisoning.  A 2013 review of the literature found 26 studies with significant evidence linking harm to the developing brain of children to exposure to organophosphate pesticides - including cognitive, behavioral and motor developmental defects.  For example, a 2010 study found a link between levels of the breakdown product of a group of organophosphate pesticides, which includes TCVP, and higher rates of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  Some scientists, after reviewing these studies, have drawn parallels to the well-established harm caused by lead.  These experts have cautioned that to protect children and ensure their ability to learn and thrive, we must take action to get rid of exposures to these pesticides just as we have targeted lead.

Propoxur

Propoxur belongs to a class of pesticides called carbamates.  Although it has long been known that carbamates and organophosphates impact the nervous system in a similar way and cause similar poisoning symptoms, it wasn’t until 2011 that there was a study that looked at the impacts of prenatal exposure and children’s neurodevelopment at lower levels.  This study found defects similar to that shown in the organophosphates studies – particularly around motor development- linked to prenatal exposure to propoxur.

While working on this issue, I have had the opportunity to speak to veterinarians, read their clinical recommendations for flea control, and review some of the available scientific literature on the efficacy of flea control pesticides.  And the message from the experts is clear. One, flea collars with propoxur and TCVP are not effective ways to control fleas and two, there are much safer alternatives available to pet owners.  Some vets have gone as far as to tell me flat out that the flea collars don’t work and they don’t recommend them.  One study compared the efficacy of a suite of pesticides by measuring the amount of each pesticide required to kill 95% of the fleas and found that propoxur was one of the least effective pesticides they evaluated.  In these tests it took an average of 1,300, and up to 2,300, nanograms per flea as compared to the most effective pesticide they tested which only required between 0.63 and 0.74 nanograms per flea.

As I have shared in a previous post, I have a dog at home.  My dog loves kids and the feelings are often mutual.  I have seen, first hand, the closeness between young kids and pets and it’s clear that toxic chemicals should have no part in that love.  Brain and nervous system-harming chemicals, propoxur and TCVP are too dangerous to have in our homes, on our pets, and around our kids.  Families shouldn’t have to worry about the products available at their local pet store.  EPA must respond to our petitions and ban these toxic pesticides from pet products.

For more information about safer methods of flea and tick control, check out our online guide, which provides information for over a 100 flea and tick control products.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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