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Wardrobe Malfunction

Thu, Jul 7, 2005

Stories, Vault: Bullhorn

Wardrobe Malfunction

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, July 7, 2005

By Joshua Zaffos

It can hardly be considered a coincidence that West Nile virus swarmed America, and then the insect-repellent garment industry had a breakthrough. Just imagine a group of investors, outdoorsmen, scientists and fashionistas assembled in the late ’90s to outfit the “swat team,” as Colorado health officials have dubbed citizens wary of disease-bearing mosquitoes. In 2001, a limited liability company formed in Greensboro, North Carolina, to manufacture and sell BUZZ OFF Insect Shield apparel.

Asian tiger mosquito, a vector of West Nile virus (photo via US CDC)

Now, L.L. Bean, Orvis and Ex Officio offer shirts, shorts, hats, pants and socks “impregnated” with bug-repelling, patent-pending technology. Fort Collins residents can buy BUZZ OFF clothes at Jax and REI.

This sounds like a godsend for Coloradans and all Americans. West Nile virus landed in the U.S. in 1999 and arrived in Colorado two summers ago. That year, 2,947 people in Colorado reported West Nile symptoms and 63 died. In Larimer and Weld counties, 948 citizens were diagnosed with the virus and fifteen of them died. Last Wednesday, the counties confirmed the first two cases of West Nile for the year statewide.

Mosquitoes spread West Nile by biting infected birds and picking up the disease. Then, one little vampire flies off, sinks her proboscis into a fleshy elbow, penetrates a blood vessel and leaves behind the virus. Symptoms include fever and body aches, but can progress to convulsions, encephalitis or meningitis—which both involve inflammation of parts of the brain—and even death.

The stats and symptoms escalate that buzzing by your ear from annoying to perilous. Sweat, induced by the heat and fear, increases your chance of infection since mosquitoes are attracted by scent. The burning sting on the back of your neck becomes exacerbated by an itchy paranoia over imminent brain swelling.

Why wouldn’t a person run out and buy BUZZ OFF clothing? A wardrobe that wards off mosquitoes bearing West Nile virus and ticks with Lyme Disease could save humanity. “How does it work?” you wonder, as you stand in line at the register of your favorite outdoor clothing store. According to the tags, “BUZZ OFF Insect Shield builds into your clothes a manmade version of a centuries-old insect repellent made from chrysanthemums.”

That kinda sounds like the campy ’70s commercial when the Asian laundry man credits an “ancient Chinese secret” for getting clothes clean, but it turns out to be the detergent additive Calgon.

Chrysanthemums do produce a natural chemical called pyrethrin. You can make it at home by crushing the dried flowers. But BUZZ OFF uses a synthetic pyrethroid called permethrin, which was engineered to be much more toxic than flower power.

Permethrin is a neurotoxin that’s applied as an industrial crop pesticide—and has been sprayed over Fort Collins in previous summers. The United States Environmental Protection Agency recognizes the chemical as a possible cancer-causing agent, which is why BUZZ OFF is the first line of clothing ever registered with the government agency. Studies reviewed by the World Health Organization show an increase in lung and liver tumors in mice exposed to permethrin. Further, some experts believe permethrin is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can monkey around with the hormones that cue our growth and development.

An alarming example could be the 30,000 cases of Gulf War Syndrome among soldiers who fought in Iraq the first time around. The illness causes chronic muscle and joint pain, memory loss and general neurological damage. Research from Duke University suggests that Gulf War Syndrome may be linked to the use of permethrin-impregnated clothing in combination with anti-nerve gas drugs and DEET, the most popular toxic bug spray.

“Ancient Chinese secret, huh?”

None of these health risks is on the labels for BUZZ OFF. The tags sewn on the neurotoxin-laden clothing don’t even mention permethrin. The manufacturers do, however, tell consumers to wash BUZZ OFF clothing separate from the rest of the laundry and that its repellent powers wear off after 25 washings. Field data already prove that permethrin from agricultural use builds up in rivers where it’s lethal to the fish and critters that live in the waters.

Government health departments concede that West Nile virus is rare, and most infected people won’t even know they have it. Officials say the peak in transmission occurs the second year after the virus shows up, meaning Colorado and most of the country has already seen the worst of it. Last year, there were fewer than 300 cases and only four deaths in the entire state. Our counties had just 25 cases; everyone survived.

There are plenty of truly natural insect repellents, including citronella, lemongrass and tea tree oil. Public health and consumer groups are pushing for the clothing tags on BUZZ OFF to fully disclose the dangers of permethrin. But as with so many other toxic chemicals, this is probably another experiment where we’ll learn the results the hard way.

And that’s enough to sting us with a really painful dose of paranoia.
Staff reporter Joshua Zaffos uses a combo of lemongrass and B.O. to ward off the skeeters.

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