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Head Lice Treatments--the Risks of Chemical Pesticides

Head lice shampoos and treatments often contain chemical pesticides to kill the head lice. Many parents use these treatments without a second thought. However, knowing more about what is actually in these over the counter treatments can give a parent pause or make them change their minds about using a chemical treatment at all. Two of the most common chemical pesticides present in over the counter head lice treatments, Malathion and lindane, have the potential to be particularly harmful.

Malathion is a chemical that was developed by the Swiss chemical giant Ciba-Geigy back in the 1950s as an agricultural crop insecticide and for pest control in homes and gardens. Very quickly thereafter, problems began occurring. It turns out that children are especially susceptible to the effects of Malathion. Studies have shown links between regular exposure to malathion and various human maladies, including non-Hodgkins lymphoma, childhood leukemia, anemia, chromosome damage, and weakened immune systems. It has also been known to cause flu like symptoms and allergic reactions in children and adults alike. Malathion exposure can occur through inhalation or absorption through the skin.

Lindane is another common ingredient in head lice treatment shampoos. This chemical, which has been in use since the 1950s, is created by mixing chlorine gas with benzene and filtering out the particulate solids that result. Chlorine gas is a poison and benzene is a well-known carcinogen. Lindane has been consistently listed in the top chemicals of concern by the Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. According to the Centennial Edition of the Merck Index, poisoning with lindane may occur by ingestion, inhalation, or skin absorption—all of which are possible with treatment with head lice shampoos. Possible symptoms of lindane poisoning include headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, weakness, convulsions, difficulty breathing, low blood oxygen levels, and circulatory collapse. Case-controlled research shows a significant association between the incidences of brain tumors in children with the use of lindane-containing lice shampoos.

However, if the most common pesticides in over the counter lice treatments are so harmful, what is a parent to do when faced with a child with head lice? There are treatments available to eradicate head lice and prevent re-infestation without the use of chemicals. Repeated combing with nit remover combs will usually eradicate a head lice infestation within two weeks, if the parent is meticulous and dedicated. This repeated nit combing must be followed with measures to kill lice in the home environment. This includes boiling or replacing all hair brushes, combs, and hair care items like barrettes and pony tail ties; washing bedding in hot water and placing stuffed animals in a hot dryer for thirty minutes, and vacuuming repeatedly to remove lice from carpets. Lice do not live on family pets and treatment of pets is not necessary.

Successful treatment of head lice does not have to involve the use of potentially dangerous pesticides. By meticulous combing and cleaning methods, head lice can be killed and eradicated without them.


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