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Headlice Treatment Linked To Birth Defects

Toxins Action Group
10 April 2002

Pesticides Used In Headlice Treatment Linked To Birth Defects And Cancer

The Toxins Action Group is calling on the Minister of Health to ban the use of pesticides for the treatment of headlice in children and pregnant women. “Parents do not need to use products containing pesticides to get rid of headlice in their children”, commented Alison White, spokesperson for the Toxins Action Group. “There are several successful alternatives which are now available in many chemists and health shops. We think it is potentially dangerous to use these pesticides for headlice treatment, especially for pregnant women, young children and those with weakened immune systems. Pesticides used in headlice treatment have been linked to birth defects, cancer, immune system and genetic damage as well as hormonal disruption.”

The best and cheapest preventive headlice treatment is to brush the hair every day, especially at night. This breaks the legs of the lice, preventing them from running off to multiply. In the US the National Pediculosis Association and Harvard School of Public Health both recommend careful combing of nits and lice as the most effective method of control.

A common form of headlice treatment contains malathion or maldison, an organophosphate (eg Prioderm and Para Plus). Malathion has been linked in various studies to birth defects, cancer, immune system suppression, hormonal disruption, reproductive problems and genetic damage. Headaches, nausea, visual disorders, behavioral changes, learning impairment and skin sensitization may also be triggered by malathion exposure. Even worse is that there is a breakdown product of malathion called malaoxon which is 40 times more acutely toxic than malathion. Both malaoxon and malathion have been found to be more toxic to younger mammals. Malathion is often also used in flea collars and treatments.

Other headlice products may contain synthetic pyrethroids such as permethrin or d-phenothrin (eg Pyrifoam, Para Plus, Quellada.). Permethrin is labelled a possible human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Recent research has shown that permethrin and other synthetic pyrethroids can suppress the immune system, produce nervous system, reproductive and genetic damage, and disrupt the delicate balance of hormones at very low levels. Hormonal disruptors have been found to affect children’s ability to learn, to fend off disease, and to reproduce - the foetus in the womb and young children are at particular risk. Children are also likely to be more sensitive to the toxic effects of permethrin, like malathion.

Growing insect resistance is a problem with both organophosphates such as malathion and pyrethroids such as permethrin. The more these products are used, the more insects develop resistance to them.

Personal and anecdotal reports of successful herbal treatments include tea tree, thyme, lavender and eucalyptus oils, or often a combination of oils. The homeopathic remedy staphisagria has also been successfully used in a number of cases. Several proprietary herbal and homeopathic brands are now available. Some chemists have in fact reported that their sales of herbal treatments for headlice now exceed their sales of pesticide treatments. Whatever treatment is used needs to be repeated after a week to kill the eggs that hatch.

“This is yet another case where pesticides do not need to be used”, concluded Ms White.


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