Daily News Archive

Pesticide-Clothing For Adults and Kids Lack Health Warnings
(Beyond Pesticides, August 2, 2004)
Buzz Off™ Insect Shield Insect Repellent clothing, a line of clothing that has been impregnated with the insecticide permethrin to ward against mosquitoes, is being sold in outdoor stores across the country without labels that warn against possible exposure and contamination routes. The company recently launched a new line of kid's clothes that is being sold at Talbot's Kids and other stores.

The outdoor stores selling the clothing, including REI, EMS, and Hudson Trail Outfitters, appear to know very little about the pesticide contained in the clothing. Although permethrin is being described by Buzz Off ™'s manufacturers as "a man-made version of a repellent that occurs naturally in chrysanthemums," in reality, permethrin, like other synthetic pyrethroids, is engineered to be much more toxic and persistent than natural pyrethrins.

The new line of kid's clothing is particularly offensive as children are known to be more susceptible to the adverse effects of low dose pesticide exposure. Animal studies have shown permethrin, in particular, to be more toxic to young children than adults and to potentially inhibit neonatal brain development.

The recent popularity of the Buzz Off™ clothing is alarming due to the lack of warnings on the clothing's label. The label essentially neglects to display any dangers of permethrin exposure, either to consumers or the environment, and does not caution against certain uses that could present higher risk.

The label states that the clothing is effective for 25 washings, and that the clothing should be washed separately. This indicates that the chemical comes off in water. Research has shown that some permethrin from impregnated clothes comes off onto the skin, and a portion of that is absorbed into the body. If a person is sweating or swimming while wearing the clothing, more of the chemical will likely come off onto the skin. The longer one wears the clothes, the more permethrin will be absorbed into the body. But the label does not caution against wearing the clothing while in water nor does it warn against prolonged exposure to the clothes. Although the acute toxicity of permethrin is fairly low, there are some serious long-term health problems associated with this pesticide.

Permethrin is a possible carcinogen and a suspected endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors interfere with normal hormone function and can contribute to breast and testicular cancer, birth defects, learning disorders, and other problems. Animal studies indicate that small amounts of permethrin may cause immunotoxicity, or corruption of the immune system. Exposure to sunlight may worsen this response, according to the research of Virginia Tech Professor Steven D. Holladay and colleagues. Although Holladay's research is based on higher doses than that found in the clothing, he points out the need for studies that examine immunotoxicity at comparable doses to the clothing. "Nobody really knows at this point the risk that the clothes pose," he explained.

A major concern with this clothing is the potential for people to receive combined exposures to a mix of pesticides. The clothing label advises that people should use the clothing "in conjunction with an insect repellent registered for direct application to skin," and at least one of the manufacturers suggests that the clothes be used specifically with DEET. According to the U.S. EPA, approximately one-third of the U.S. population uses DEET every year.

Use of DEET in combination with permethrin likely facilitates enhanced dermal absorption of permethrin-meaning more permethrin could be absorbed into the bloodstream than EPA has taken into account. Additionally, when registering active ingredients, EPA does not consider the synergistic effects of the active ingredient with other chemicals.

Several studies done by a team of Duke University researchers lead by Mohammed Abou-Donia suggest that DEET in conjunction with permethrin-impregnated clothing may be linked to Gulf War Syndrome. The symptoms, which affect thousands of veterans from the first Persian Gulf War, include headaches, fatigue, loss of memory, and chronic muscle and joint pain. The researchers exposed animals to the same doses of DEET and permethrin experienced by the war veterans using the same routes of exposure and found neurological damage that lead to motor deficits and learning and memory dysfunction, like the damage characterized by Gulf War Syndrome. (See a review of the study.)

According to Dr. Abou-Donia, there are three main problems with these clothes (and their inadequate labels): Prolonged exposure to permethrin, combined exposure to permethrin and DEET, and increased sensitivity of certain segments of the population-particularly the elderly, pregnant women, and young children. He explained that even though the clothes might not pose that much risk to the average person, certain populations are more at risk. At this point, Dr. Abou-Donia explained, we don't know the effect of these clothes on those more sensitive people. "There is an urgent need for studies to document the safety of these chemicals…we need the information, and right now we just don't have enough."

Another danger that these clothes pose is that of environmental contamination. Although the label states that the clothing should not be stored or disposed of in water, it does not warn against washing or wearing the clothes in bodies of water, such as while swimming, camping, or washing in streams, lakes or other water bodies. Permethrin is well known for its high toxicity to fish and other aquatic organisms, in notably small doses. A recent U.C. Berkeley study also found that low doses of synthetic pyrethroids are accumulating in creek sediments in levels toxic to freshwater bottom dwellers, which could have an adverse affect on the water body's entire ecosystem.

When touting the safety of Buzz Off, the manufacturers claim that in order to get registered by EPA, the clothing "underwent rigorous testing and review." Yet according to EPA, the 2003 registration of Buzz Off™ was not for the use of permethrin-treated clothing; it was solely for the fabric. The use was registered in the early 1990s, when it first started to be used for soldier's clothing. None of the studies done in the last 10+ years, including Abou-Donia's studies linking permethrin and DEET to Gulf War Syndrome, could have been taken into account. EPA will not do a revised risk assessment examining all uses of permethrin until at least 2006.

TAKE ACTION: Buzz Off™ 's label does not adequately protect the environment or the consumer from the knowing the real and potential hazards of these clothes. Join Beyond Pesticides in writing REI, EMS, or other stores selling Buzz Off™ clothing and urge them to stop selling these products. Use our SAMPLE LETTER to REI to help you. Send a copy to EPA or write the EPA Administrator and responsible department directly and voice your concerns over this new product:
1. The label fails to warn against washing or wearing in water bodies such as streams or lakes
2. The label fails to warn against prolonged use or specify a safe duration
3. The label and the manufacturer both suggest use with DEET when they should be cautioning against it
4. Important studies on pesticide-impregnated clothing have not been taken into account