Ugh! – Fleas in the House!
by Rebecca Morley
Oscar the cat has brought some unwelcome guests into our home – fleas. With a new baby, I’m especially concerned about what type of treatment I should use to get rid of them, without leaving a sea of pesticides behind.
I made my first call to Home Paramount and asked if they have a low-toxicity way of treating fleas. I mentioned that I have a newborn who spends a lot of time on the floor. They said that the only way to treat the fleas was with “Ultracide,” an aerosol. We would need to spend three to four hours out of the house, because the treatment has a very strong odor. When I asked if any residue would be left over, they said I would need to vacuum every day for a week. They went on to say that the baseboard treatments are ineffective at treating the larvae that the fleas leave behind. Gross!
So I checked out the MSDS for Ultracide to see exactly what’s in it. Besides being extremely flammable, the label says the product is “Harmful if swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through skin. Do not breathe vapors or spray mist. Avoid contact with skin or eyes. Avoid contamination of food or feedstuffs.” The active ingredients in Ultracide are Pyriproxyfen, Pyrethrins, n-Octyl bicycloheptene dicarboximide, and Permethrin. A post to Healthyhomesnet (a listserv founded and managed by NCHH) revealed a wealth of information, including the NRDC document called “Poisons on Pets,” which provides low-toxicity treatment options and also detailed the health effects of some of the traditional insecticides. I also got a very useful two-page fact sheet from the folks at UC Davis.
In short, I did all the physical controls these documents recommended – vacuuming, washing bedding, restricting pet access, et cetera. Still, there are lots of fleas jumping on our feet! One Healthyhomesnet friend said to spray nontoxic Orange Guard. Others suggested borate-based carpet treatments (e.g., Fleanix). This required mixing and a carpet shampooing machine. It’s just too much work to get a carpet cleaner, mix the stuff up, et cetera, and I’m not sure of the impact on my carpets. Others suggested diatomaceous earth. The NRDC document suggested that no long-term safety studies exist for diatomaceous earth and that it has been linked to lung cancer in minors. Also, diatomaceous earth apparently works on the adults but won’t kill the larvae. Another suggestion was to use D-limonene. It’s a citrus oil. The fact sheet from UC Davis said to use caution with this product, because some pets are sensitive to it.
After assessing the scope of the infestation and not wanting this to be a month-long experiment, I decided to turn it up a notch. So, I sent my husband to Home Depot to shop for treatments. He could only find “Hot Shot” with permethrin. A Healthyhomesnet friend said, “No, don’t get this product – it’s likely an aerosol. Get a liquid trigger spray with the chemical methoprene.” So, husband trekked to the pet store and bought Zodiac Carpet and Upholstery pump spray. It has .01% methoprene (which is an insect growth regulator/IGR). They are aimed at stopping future generations of fleas by attacking the eggs and larvae. The product also has .28% permethrin, which is a pyrethroid and kills the adults. NRDC notes that permethrin products have been linked to pet illnesses, and there are concerns about long-term effects of pyrethroids in humans. Overall, this seems to be the most straightforward product to use – spray a light mist on carpets and furniture. The directions say to leave for an hour and to avoid contaminating food.
So we are vacuuming, cleaning all the floors and upholstery, applying the product, leaving for an hour, and then returning to redo the vacuum and cleaning cycle. I’m disinclined to treat our furniture since our skin touches it. But, I’ll take precautions to keep the cat outdoors for at least a day to keep him away from the treatment. And I’ll avoid putting the baby directly on the carpets.
Stay tuned! Thanks to everyone who took the time to offer suggestions and documents!
Rebecca Morley directed the National Center for Healthy Housing from October 2002 to December 2014. While at NCHH, she led efforts to create safer and healthier environments for all people, with a special focus on children and communities that are disproportionately burdened by environmental public health risks. Ms. Morley is an experienced leader and manager with nearly 20 years of experience working in the government and nonprofit sectors. Ms. Morley earned a Master of Science in public policy from the Georgia Institute of Technology and graduated from the Achieving Excellence executive fellowship program of the Harvard Kennedy School. Skilled in strategy development, policy analysis, program evaluation, organizational development, communications, grant seeking, and grant making, she now serves the public health community as a professional consultant.