Eco-Tip: Mosquitoes at Home and in the Wild

My co-worker Ali just came back from a beautiful, inspiring, and mosquito-filled camping trip at Lake Tahoe. She watched her friends liberally dousing themselves with various common repellents, mostly containing that nasty-sounding chemical DEET, and decided she’d rather be bitten and itchy than covered with DEET.

You probably haven’t had the opportunity to meet Ali, but I can tell you one thing about her. She has remarkable patience. I know this because over and over again she graciously lets me steal and rewrite her blog posts. And she put up with those obnoxious mosquitoes all weekend. (I consider myself pretty patient with mosquitoes, but the last time I was camping in a horde of mosquitoes, we came home early and barbecued on our not-very-scenic deck instead of with the snow-capped mountains at 7,000 feet.)

Ali was right to be suspicious of DEET. Consider what a Duke University toxicologist has found in laboratory experiments: application of DEET causes “neuronal degeneration” (in plain English that means dead brain cells; for all the scientific details click here).

But mosquitoes, although they have a significant and irreplaceable role in many of the world’s most beautiful places, are more than just an itchy nuisance. They can also carry dangerous diseases. So what should you do? Here are some tips to avoid both mosquito and repellent problems:

•       Screens work wonders. At home, make sure that your windows have screens that fit and don’t have holes in them. When camping, a good tent can really make a difference. (Ali, let me know next time you’re headed to the mountains and I’ll lend you my tent with the screens that let you both watch the stars and escape mosquitoes.)

•       Outdoor lights can attract mosquitoes, use them as little as possible when mosquitoes are out.

•       Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. If mosquitoes are really bad when you’re camping or hiking, a hat with protective netting makes a huge difference.

•       Around your home, look for anything that holds water and empty it or change the water frequently: buckets, potted plant saucers, garbage cans, wheelbarrows, bird baths, pet water dishes, etc. Even a small container can be the home for lots of mosquitoes.

•       If you feel like you need to use a repellent, here are a few tips when you’re standing in the store aisle trying to decide what to buy. Read the ingredient list. Look for products that don’t list DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) as an ingredient. Also look for repellents that identify all ingredients. If the label says “inert” or “other” ingredients, my advice is to keep looking. Repellents with plant-based ingredients that USDA entomologists have documented are effective include repellents made with soy bean oil, geraniol, and (for short times) citronella.

Enjoy the summer! Even when mosquitoes are annoying, they’re definitely part of life.