For the first time my cat (Stimpy) has recently developed a very persistent flea problem and managed, despite my best efforts, to infest my home as well - so I ended up covered in itchy bites!
I don't mind treating Stimpy with the regular anti-flea products as I can apply them wearing my carbon filter mask (or holding my breath!) and then leave him outside for the rest of the day. When it comes to my home however there is no way I can spray pesticides/insecticides on my carpets and furnishings. I'd never be able to live there again.
On a recent trip to Pets at Home (the equivalent of PetSmart in the US) I came across a product labelled with stand-out words such as "natural" and "organic". I've learned through experience that this in no way means the product is safe for those with environmental illness however so I made a mental note of the active ingredients and did a bit of research when I got home.
The ingredients in question are pyrethrins. On first inspection things looked promising. It turns out pyrethrins are a group of compounds which act as insecticides and are found in the seed cases of the perennial plant pyrethrum (Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium).
So technically, the product I came across was labelled correctly, assuming the pyrethrum plants were grown to local organic standards. The product also had no other ingredients other than water so I could have been tempted to make a purchase. Further digging revealed less positive information about pyrethrins however.
The Pesticide Action Network (PAN) keeps a database of the toxic effects of substances used as pesticides and provides information on their classification by an extensive list of international regulatory agencies. PAN states the effects of pyrethrins include carcinogenicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, and acute toxicity. Worrying classifications of pyrethrins are almost entirely absent other than an EU label as an endocrine disruptor (chemicals which intefere with or mimic hormones and are associated with cancer and other diseases).
The picture doesn't get any brighter visiting the Beyond Pesticides monograph on pyrethrins. Based on the limited available evidence Beyond Pesticides assert that pyrethrins are sensitizers and irritants, meaning they can cause allergic reactions and irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract (including nose, mouth, throat). They assert they are also toxic to aquatic organisms, and may cause cancer. They classify pyrethrins as "toxic".
When you think about it, it is not really surprising that chemicals designed to kill pests, whether man-made or found in nature, are also likely to have consequences for the health of us humans. So what are the real safe alternatives for someone in my position - an EI sufferer with a serious flea problem?
The Real Safe Insecticide Alternatives
For your Pet
An alternative to the use of common flea control products containing insecticides on your pet is to buy a flea comb. These are combs with the teeth very close together to catch the fleas. Brushing your pet with such a comb outside and killing the fleas as you find them (easily achieved using a bucket of water) would seem an effective approach assuming it is done regularly and you make sure to cover the entire animal.
For your Home
Restrict the pet to a small area - Until the flea problem is under control it is a good idea to restrict your pet to a small area of the home to avoid the spreading of fleas.
Wash the pet's bedding regularly - To kill noth adult fleas and eggs that have fallen of your pet.
Wash your own bedding regularly on a hot wash - As horrible as it sounds your own bed is a very tempting home for fleas as they can feed on your dead skin etc. Washing your bedding at least once a week is essential.
Vaccum regularly - This is vital if you are to get the flea problem under control. You can pick up fleas in all stages of their development from eggs to adults. Be sure to empty the vacuum bag/canister after every session and dispose of the contents in a sealed plastic bag in the outdoor bin/trash can.
Steam cleaning - For severe problems it may be necessary to employ steam cleaning along with vacuuming. The heat of the steam is able to kill many of the fleas which can then be vacuumed up.
Light traps - Fleas are attracted to the warmth and light provided by incandescent bulbs. Light traps consist of a bulb surrounded by sticky paper. Estimates of their effectiveness for catching fleas range from 10% in independant studies to 95% in manufacturer sponsored studies. They may well be worth a try as part of an overall approach.
If the above fail to completely rid your home of fleas then you may opt to use the least toxic insecticide substances:
Diatomaceous earth or silica aerogel - Composed of amorphous silica in garden/food grade it is capable of killing fleas by dehydration while being safe for humans and pets. A light dusting of dessicating powder over carpets and soft furnishings should be sufficient. Avoid swimming pool grade which has been associated with lung disease.
Boric acid - Works well on carpets and kills fleas by acting as a stomach poison and by causing dehydration. Can be toxic to pets and children if ingested so exercise caution when using boric acid.
My home now thankfully seems to be flea-free. If you have had a flea problem yourself and found other natural methods for overcoming it then please let us know using the comments section below.
About: Matthew Hogg ("Maff")
Diagnosed with M.E./chronic fatigue syndrome aged only 11 years old and subsequently associated illnesses including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Despite his own struggles he has constantly sought to educate and support others suffering from such "invisible illnesses" through his website, The Environmental Illness Resource. He fully recovered from MCS using his own approach and holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutritional Health.