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For decades the makers of Raid, the most popular bug spray in the United States, have advertised their product with the slogan "kills bugs dead." But do bug sprays kill people, too?

Three Unlikely Facts About Bug Spray

Some of the most frequently told tales of the devastating effects of bug sprays are simply urban legends. And some of the most fantastic-sounding stories about bug sprays are actually true. This article will take a look at five myths and five facts about bug sprays so you can know when you are safe from ill effects and when expecting the worst is really sensible.

Claim #1: Bug spray can be explosive

This often-repeated claim about bug sprays is fact-based, but you can easily avoid disaster. The American television program Mythbusters investigated a claim that a family in San Diego, California lost its home when the myst from multiple bug bombs was ignited by a spark from a personal computer, causing the house to explode in flames, quickly incinerating the structure.[1]

This story seems to have originated in a report on Ananova in 2005 about an incident in the state of Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany, not in southern California. Walter Mueller, aged 36, the Ananova story goes, set out several canisters of bug spray to get rid of cockroaches in his apartment. Failing to heed warnings not to breathe in the fumes, he then sat down at his computer to surf the web. A spark from the computer ignited the bug spray, incinerating the apartment.[1]

The producers of Mythbusters were able to duplicate the incident in a test house, using several dozen cans of bug spray. Mueller's disaster probably would not have taken place in a larger flat or if he had simply followed the instructions on the product and left his residence for 24 hours.

Claim #2. Bug spray causes cancer

The California fruit industry is periodically threatened by a tiny insect known as the Mediterranean fruit fly. Eradicated in Hawaii, New Zealand, and Chile, but still found in Australia, Texas, Florida, and its native Mediterranean home, the fruit fly lays its eggs in tiny cracks in the peels of fruit, wriggling larvae hatching three days later.

In most of the locations where the fruit fly has been wiped out, its population has been killed by aerial spraying with the pesticide Malathion. In addition to taking the paint off cars, Malathion is rumored to cause cancer. But does it really?[2]

Oddly enough, malathion exposure has been linked to cancer, but not in California, Hawaii, Texas, Florida, New Zealand, or Chile. Six provinces of Canada report higher rates of cancer among agricultural workers exposed to the pesticide. In particular, agricultural bug spray has been linked to prostate cancer among farmers in British Columbia. This form of prostate cancer actually grows when it is treated with hormone therapy, making it especially deadly. Perhaps because the public health officials don't want to know, similar studies have not been conducted in other countries where malathion bug sprays have been used on fruit.

Several kinds of research were made to prove a link between cancer and malathion: rats were fed for up to two years with malathion and scientists found no evidence of increased cancer in the treated animals, while another study where researchers again used high doses of malathion found that rats and mice developed liver cancer. The United States Environmental Protection Agency determined that there is "suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity but not sufficient to assess human carcinogenic potential by all routes of exposure," for malathion.[2]

Claim # 3. Bug spray is dangerous for babies

One of the most alarming documented stories of the dangers of bug sprays for babies comes from the Journal of Medical Case Reports in 2009. Parents of a newborn baby boy in Spain lived in a house with a severe infestation of cockroaches. The mother used a full bottle (1000 cc) of bug spray every two days to try to get the bugs under control. The father worked as a fruit fly fumigator in an orchard, but was careful to change his clothes before he came home from work.

The baby boy was born with a condition called bladder exstrophy. He was born with his bladder outside his body, rather than inside it. His blood tested positive for a bug spray ingredient called permethrin.[3]

Permethrin acts like estrogen in developing girl babies and as an anti-testosterone in developing boy babies. When the embryo is exposed to chemicals in this class during the fifth to seventh weeks of pregnancy, the "plumbing" of the urogenital tract fails to form. The bladder may remain outside the body, and the penis may be replaced by an open cavity, even when the child is genetically male. Baby girls develop normal external genitalia but may suffer reproductive failure later in life.
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