Zapping, baiting and spraying: the lowdown on going bug-free

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QSometimes I’m really tempted to use DEET. What eco-friendly bug repellents actually work?

AJust in case you didn’t have enough reasons to complain about the weather, here’s another: all this heat and rain makes mosquitoes horny. So besides patrolling your yard or balcony for standing water (which is basically like a birthing room for bloodsuckers), what do you do about keeping them off your skin?

As tempting as it is to douse yourself in a chemical that promises to confuse mosquitoes by biologically messing with their antennae so they can’t find their target (namely you), DEET is obviously not the greenest option. It’s pretty potent stuff, and with daily use over several months (like, say, the length of the summer), some people have developed shortness of breath, headaches, tremors, joint pain and even seizures. Young kids are particularly at risk, and DEET should never be used on kids under six months.

A study by the New England Journal Of Medicine found that soy-based Bite Blocker is the only natural product tested that rivalled DEET. Health Canada says it should protect you for one to three and a half hours (www.biteblocker. com).

Weirdly, Health Canada’ pesticide management branch advocates phasing out citronella. The agency feels that makers of the repellent haven’t submitted enough data to prove it’s safe. It also says citronella is a skin sensitizer that may cause allergic reactions in some (patch test it first) and shouldn’t be used on kids under two.

In any case, citronella products (including Skin So Soft Bug Guard) aren’t all that effective and have to be reapplied as often as every 10 t0 30 minutes. (The New England study found that weak citronella formulations wore off after three minutes!)

As for the gadgets, wristbands – even those soaked in DEET – only worked for 12 to 18 seconds! Ultrasonic wristbands and devices are supposed to mimic bat sounds to keep bugs at bay, but mosquitoes don’t seem bothered by them. Electric zappers are better at killing moths than biting insects. Coils and candles only work if you’re sitting right next to them and the wind is blowing your way.

Traps that emit carbon dioxide and heat are growing in popularity, but some are said to be better than others. Pricey propane-run Mosquito Magnets (www.mosquitomagnet. com) are supposed to attract mozzies, sand flies and blackflies by mimicking human exhalations, releasing a constant plume of carbon dioxide, octenol (a synthetic attractant) and heat into a vacuum trap. The company tells us the amount of carbon dioxide emitted is minimal, equivalent to having a cow on your property. It’s said to virtually eliminate the mosquito population in your yard within three to six weeks without harming non-bloodsuckers, and it’s recommended by the U.S. Army, the Centres for Disease Control and the Good Housekeeping Institute.

Campers who’ve suffered through northern blackfly and mosquito swarmings have probably been tempted by the promise of insect-repelling clothes. Buzz Off Insect Shield clothing makes gear for everyone from Tommy Hilfiger and L.L. Bean to lesser-known lines of ball caps, fishing wear and golf shirts. But while the company touts Buzz Off as a man-made version of a chrysanthemum’s naturally repelling properties, it’s really just fabric embedded with permethrin.

Too bad permethrin is really toxic to fish and tadpoles and can cause all sorts of physical reactions in humans, from nausea to asthma attacks, on top of being a suspected hormone disrupter and possible carcinogen. DC-based Beyond Pesticides says some of this stuff comes off on your skin, especially if you sweat. Oh yeah, and these garments aren’t legal in Canada. You’re not even supposed to order them online.

The only anti-insect clothing we’d recommend is the old-fashioned bug shirt type. These lightweight pullover hoodies with mesh over the face offer a personal refuge of sorts when you’re in the deep woods. Think of it as the camper’s burka. The Original Bug Company offers made-in-Canada shirts, pants, hoods and something called gaiters (kind of like leg warmers, but more for keeping your ankles bite-free than primed for that Flash Dance revival

Camping stores also tend to have all sorts of eco netting products for your outdoor pleasure.

Other than that, you can try your hand at home remedies like not eating bananas or peanut butter and popping garlic pills, B-1 and brewer’s yeast instead.

And if you are paddling through a swamp and can’t say no to DEET entirely, then at least pick a product with the least DEET possible, like under 10 per cent. (You can’t buy DEET over 30 per cent in Canada any more.)

If you’re in a heavy mosquito zone, don’t forget to wear light colours and long sleeves and pants, and stay in at dusk and dawn.

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