Beat the Bugs

by | Sep 18, 2013

By John Anderson

Much has been written about the threats from mosquito and tick bites in recent times. Lyme Disease, West Nile Virus, and Eastern Equine Encephalitis have all grabbed the headlines. All three can make you very ill, and EEE kills a significant number of those who contract the disease. If you travel to the western United States, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Leishmaniasis can be added to the risks. Dengue Fever, Malaria, and Yellow Fever become threats in foreign travel. In New England, we are at risk until the first hard frost which often is not until October.

Standard preventative measures include insect repellents, long clothing, staying inside between dusk and dawn, and eliminating standing water outside of your home. More detail is offered on the Auburn Guide, Public Health sites, and the Central Mass Mosquito Control Project site: No single protection is perfect, and using a combination reduces one’s exposure. In reality, you also do have to be bitten by an insect actually carrying the disease.   

The best defense is not being bit in the first place, and here are a few suggestions to consider. A little background first. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to the Amazon jungle three times with retired AMS science teacher Mark Blazis. Before each trip there is a ritual of preparation. All top layer clothing gets sprayed with Permethrin that adheres to the fabric and provides protection for about 6 weeks. The clothing must dry completely before being stored in sealed plastic bags to avoid moisture that is inherent to rain forests.

Travelers must also bring along insect repellent for those areas not protected by clothing. DEET works the best in my opinion, but note that all repellents have warnings for children. When travelling by airline aerosol repellents are prohibited. During my trips, I never experienced a mosquito bite. I did have multiple bites from red ants once when I inadvertently stood atop a nest, my fault for standing in one place for too long. The red welts on the arms and backs of some team members showed me that better preparation leads to less discomfort.

You can purchase cans of permethrin spray at Dick’s, EMS, Cabela’s, and many other stores catering to outdoor enthusiasts. According to one manufacturer, Permethrin repels mosquitos, ticks, flies, houseflies, sandflies, ants, chiggers, midges, and fleas. If one of these critters contacts treated clothing, it will die. I prefer the spray permethrin made by Sawyer and sold by Cabela’s. The application seems more direct than the mist created by an aerosol can.

Permethrin was first listed with the EPA in 1977, and the U.S. Military has been using permethrin treated clothing since 1990. The cloth used for these uniforms is bonded with Permethrin prior to manufacturing, and the clothing is good for at least 70 washings, the expected life of the item. I have tracked usage on my items for three years, and no item is anywhere near 70 launderings. You simply don’t wear this clothing unless you’re in an at risk environment. There are no known hazards in wearing clothing treated with permethrin.

Two lines of clothing made with embedded permethrin are available for consumers, Insect Shield and Columbia’s Insect Blocker. Insect Shield partners with many manufacturers including Exofficio, REI, Dover Saddlery, and Orvis. They also make work wear for the construction industry. Insect Shield has an informative web site where items can be ordered. Columbia also has a good web site and their outlet in Wrentham is a good place to find discounted products.

The only downside to insect resistant clothing is the cost. Items tend to be at the higher end of similar clothing that isn’t treated. On a positive note, prices have come down on many of these items over the last year or so. Sales volumes may be the reason as we contend with increasing risks. As an example, a pair of men’s pants ranges $40-$80, and a long sleeve button shirt goes for $40-$60. I think it is well worth it to invest in these products if you spend a lot of time outdoors. Better to be safe than bit!