One of my dogs recently had her regular check-up at our veterinarian's office, where despite my oft-stated concerns over pesticide safety I was convinced to buy an expensive product to keep fleas, ticks and mosquitoes at bay during this exceptionally buggy summer.
It's perfectly safe, the doctor assured me.
As it turns out, she was wrong -- but she had no way of knowing that because of secrecy on the part of federal pesticide regulators.
The product in question was Advantix, a once-a-month topical treatment for dogs developed by Bayer. One of the active ingredients in Advantix is permethrin, a member of the family of synthetic chemicals called pyrethroids, which are similar to the potent natural pesticide pyrethrin produced from chrysanthemums. Permethrin is also used on crops and to treat head lice and scabies in humans, and it's found in popular home insect sprays.
But a groundbreaking new report by the Center for Public Integrity -- based on a decade's worth of adverse incident reports filed by pesticide manufacturers with the Environmental Protection Agency -- documents serious safety problems with permethrin and other pyrethroids:
An analysis of EPA data by the Center for Public Integrity ... shows that the number of reported human health problems, including severe reactions, attributed to pyrethrins and pyrethroids increased by about 300 percent over the past decade. 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.
Accompanying its study, CPI has created a searchable database of pesticide incident reports based on EPA data that has not been public until now. Deemed one of the "10 Most Wanted Government Documents" by the Center for Democracy and Technology, the EPA's database was released to CPI earlier this year under the Freedom of Information Act.
It shows that in my home state of North Carolina there have been five reported incidents involving Advantix and moderate adverse effects on humans. In the South overall, there have been a total of 49 adverse incidents reported involving Advantix and people, and seven others involving animals -- and that's just for one of many pyrethroid-containing products.
The EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs hadn't planned to examine the health effects of this class of chemicals until 2010, but it now says it will expedite the process.