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CDC Officials Endorse Two Anti-Mosquito Chemicals


For many parts of the country, this is the beginning of bug season. If you're in one of those parts of the country, though, you may have access to new weapons for fighting mosquitoes: There are bug repellants endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We have team coverage of our health news this morning, beginning with NPR's Richard Knox.

RICHARD KNOX reporting:

It's a sunny day in May. It's the first mosquito season for seven-month-old Bowden Kominski Willard(ph). His mother, Valerie Kominski(ph), brought him to the park. They live in Larimer County, Colorado. Mosquitoes transmitted West Nile disease to at least 17 people here last year, but Valerie Kominski admits she hasn't thought much about mosquito repellent until now.

Ms. VALERIE KOMINSKI (Mother): I can't say personally I've been a very heavy user of it. But now with our son, I am going to be more concerned about him, especially if we're, you know, somewhere near standing water, somewhere where it's clear that there are going to be mosquitoes.

KNOX: Valerie Kominski doesn't like mosquito repellents, partly because most of them don't feel good on her skin.

Ms. KOMINSKI: It's kind of a sticky feeling, especially if you're out on a, you know, warm summer night. I suppose it feels a little bit sweaty and a little bit greasy.

KNOX: That's because most repellents contain an oily chemical called DEET. It also irritates the eyes, and many people don't like the smell. Most Americans don't apply insect repellents when they go outside. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only 40 percent do. That number drops for people over 50; West Nile is most dangerous for them.

West Nile virus arrived in North America six years ago. Since then, a little more than a million Americans have been infected with it. For most people, infection with West Nile means a mild, flulike illness or no symptoms at all. But nearly 700 Americans have died of West Nile, and more than 7,000 people have become seriously ill. They've gotten inflammation of the brain and sometimes a poliolike paralysis. Emily Zielinski-Gutierrez of the CDC says a lot of people never fully recover.

Ms. EMILY ZIELINSKI-GUTIERREZ (CDC): And so what you have to think about when you go outside and don't use repellent is that something as tiny as a mosquito bite might, in fact, be changing your life forever. And I know that's kind of hard to conceptualize.

KNOX: So the CDC is trying to get more Americans to use mosquito repellents. That's why the agency recently told Americans it's OK to use two alternatives to DEET. The CDC says they work and they're safe. One is called picaridin. It's widely used in other countries; now it's available on the US market. It's in a product called Cutter Advanced. The ads say it's lighter on the skin and less irritating than DEET and picaridin is odorless.

If you like a natural chemical, the CDC has endorsed oil of lemon eucalyptus. It's found in a number of different repellents. The American Academy of Pediatrics will weigh in soon on picaridin and lemon eucalyptus, according to Michael Shannon. He chairs the academy's committee.

Mr. MICHAEL SHANNON (American Academy of Pediatrics): Now what we have is perhaps two products that are going to be as effective, as safe and maybe are going to be less oily, maybe will have absolutely no unwanted effects.

KNOX: But there's a hitch. Cutter Advanced is only a 7 percent solution of picaridin. CDC says that doesn't repel ticks, which carry Lyme disease, and Lyme is a far more common hazard than West Nile. Oil of lemon eucalyptus, in a concentration of 30 percent, is a tick repellent. A repellent with only 7 percent picaridin has another drawback. It isn't as along-lasting as a 30-percent DEET product, which protects for five hours or more. The concentration determines how long it lasts. Consumers may be able to buy higher concentrations of picaridin in the future.

On the playground in Colorado, Valerie Kominski says consumers like her have to pay attention to details like these.

Ms. KOMINSKI: There were days when we didn't worry about sunscreen or insect repellent, but you know, we live in a different time. The population has grown, you know, tremendously since then. And we all live closer together, we can spread disease a lot quicker and we're a lot more global than we used to be.

KNOX: And health experts say West Nile and Lyme probably won't be the last new insect-borne diseases to worry about. Richard Knox, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Knox
Since he joined NPR in 2000, Knox has covered a broad range of issues and events in public health, medicine, and science. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Talk of the Nation, and newscasts.