Safe flea control & organic labeling – Health Risks and Environmental Issues

Rose Marie Williams

Hippocrates may not have had the family pet in mind when he uttered, “Thy food shall be thy remedy,” but his words apply to our furry friends just the same. Veterinarian, Dr. Robert Goldstein echoes this exact sentiment when he says, “Show me a dog or cat with fleas and I’ll show you an animal on the wrong diet.”‘

Fleas and ticks are big business for the chemical/pesticide industry, selling in excess of one billion dollars annually. Dr. Goldstein fears the “chemical warfare being waged against these and other pests is doing far greater harm to our own health…”(1)

Host Resistance

Modern medicine has diligently followed Pasteur’s germ theory in its attempts to eradicate disease, while his contemporary, Bernard Bechamp, proposed the real problem – a weakened immune system that provides fertile ground in which a disease state can flourish. Germs are ever present, everywhere, but not everyone exposed gets sick. Only those individuals with compromised immune systems are likely to catch a cold, get the flu, or even become the major attractant for biting insects at a picnic. The same holds true for animals. In a household of multiple pets it may be an older or weaker animal that is frequently besieged by fleas or ticks.(1,2)

Dr. Goldstein’s paradigm of flea control is to strengthen the immune system of the affected animal, rather than using an arsenal of chemicals against the troublesome pests. Such pesticides are highly toxic and further weaken the overall health of the afflicted pet. A chronic flea infestation can serve as an early warning signal of immune deficiency and a need to reestablish balance. A lack of B vitamins in animals and humans can result in a weakened immune system, weakened nervous system, and weakened glandular systems.(1)

Parasites can even detect a particular odor in health-compromised animals, or humans, which accounts for why some individuals are plagued by mosquitoes, and why some pets are targeted by fleas. The pesticide industry has grown uncontrollably in recent decades including products for flea and tick control.

Product Toxicity

Pesticides are neurotoxins that destroy the target pest’s nervous system, promoting an early death. Nerve gases were originally developed during WWII to use against the enemy. At the conclusion of the war chemical companies were left with stockpiles of these toxins, and peacetime uses were sought. With government assistance the toxic chemicals were reformulated into lower dose products to be used in the ongoing war against insects and weeds. Agricultural applications, commercial uses, and residential demands acted as fertilizer for the growing pesticide industry. Little or no thought was given to health and environmental consequences, and thousands of products were introduced before the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was instated.

Two-thirds of flea pesticides are neurotoxic, some are capable of reproductive damage in lab tests, and the EPA lists approximately one-half as carcinogenic. All raise environmental concerns. Besides rivers and estuaries, flea products pose an unwarranted risk to children, veterinary staff, and the pets that are being dipped, sprayed, powdered, and collared.(3)

Toxins at lower doses may not kill humans or pets with the initial exposure, or even after several exposures. Because it takes longer for the negative effects to accumulate and disable the immune system, the industry continues to mislead the public and the government regulatory agencies by insisting there is no scientific proof showing cause and effect. Yet, when industry representatives have been asked by environmental and health advocates to conduct new studies on the relationship of pesticides to cancer, respiratory, and neurological disorders, they tersely reply there is no need for such studies. And so, the world goes round and round. The chemical industry claims no scientific studies demonstrate a conclusive relationship of exposure to disease, and then refuse to initiate new studies on the basis they are not needed, even though there are many small studies that indicate otherwise.

Veterinary Staff Exposure

Veterinarians, their assistants, and pet handlers are frequently exposed to toxic chemicals in flea control products. The carbaryl class of chemicals is associated with increased frequencies of diarrhea, coughing, breathing problems and congestion. The organophosphate class of chemicals can produce symptoms of headache, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and dermatitis.(3)

Super bugs

As the country with the most expensive health care in the world, it is sad to acknowledge that we have not been winning the war on cancer, degenerative disorders, bacterial and viral diseases. We have also been losing the war against natural pests. Agricultural pests destroy a greater percentage of crops now than they did fifty years ago. Our efforts to eradicate insects and weeds have served to produce more virulent species of insects and weeds while poisoning the planet. Head lice are becoming immune to even the most toxic chemicals we dare to apply to the heads of our children.(4) We need to change our “war” strategy before we poison ourselves beyond the point of salvation.

Fleas and lice now have a longer life cycle than they did fifty years ago. They breed more easily and even survive bouts of cold weather. It has become necessary to use stronger poisons, in higher doses to eradicate these super pests.(1) Survival of the fittest, short life span, and rapid replication (multiple generations every year) have created super bugs. Humans have a longer life span, do not reproduce as quickly, and have not yet developed genetic resistance to chemical poisons. We are being bombarded with increasing numbers of chemicals, the synergy of which multiplies their toxicity. This important health risk is rarely, if ever, part of any testing protocol.

Costly and Ineffective

Millions of dollars spent on toxic flea control have not bought consumer satisfaction, or healthy pest-free pets. Flea collars emit continuous, undetected vapors into the home, car, and around the pet. The toxic vapors may have little effect on fleas farthest from the collar, and little or no effect on flea eggs. The vapors are highly toxic to the animal’s skin, eyes, nose, lungs, blood, heart, liver, and kidneys.(1,3) Nor, are they good for children who hug, handle, pet, or otherwise enjoy the pleasure of being in close proximity to their furry friends. Foggers release a great deal of toxic chemicals into the air which settle on carpets, furniture, draperies, and more, while remaining ineffective against flea larvae and eggs.(3)

Nutritional Balance

In order to rebalance an animal’s compromised immune system it is necessary to utilize the right vitamins and minerals that protect against fleas and ticks. The B vitamins, particularly B-1 (thiamine) and B-6 (pyridoxine), are natural flea and tick repellents. Brewer’s yeast and rice bran contain high levels of all B vitamins.(1,3)

Optimum bone and skin health require calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, and zinc. Garlic helps to cleanse, detoxify, and strengthen the immune system, while giving the blood a taste that is offensive to pests. Garlic is also effective as a remedy for internal parasites.(1)

Nontoxic Controls

Besides boosting the pet’s immune system, there are several procedures that help reduce a flea infestation while posing no threat to the animals, humans, or environment. The cat flea is responsible for most fleabites to cats, dogs, and humans. It goes through four stages of development – eggs, larva, pupa, and adult. All four stages of development can be present at any given time. Vacuuming, washing and grooming are safe environmental approaches to flea control.

Frequent vacuuming of floors, carpets, furniture, crevices, and cracks in the area where pets sleep and spend time is advised along with weekly washing of pet bedding. During heavy infestation daily vacuuming may be necessary. Proper bag disposal is essential to prevent fleas from escaping. The vacuum bag can be sealed and thrown out or burned. Vacuuming up one tablespoon of cornstarch will ensure the fleas’ demise, and then the bag should be disposed of immediately. Towels and easily washed blankets make good bed covers. Regular use of flea combs catch fleas in the tightly spaced tines. Caught fleas should be flicked into a container of soapy water where they will drown.(3)

Adding a few drops of Tea Tree Oil to an herbal shampoo will help to repel fleas and assist in healing the pet’s flea-bitten skin, as well. Mix a teaspoon of Tea Tree Oil in a cup of water and spray the mixture on the animal’s fur. This is recommended for pets that disdain baths, which includes most cats. It is also practical for in-between baths.(5)

Children’s Susceptibility

Vacuuming, bathing, and using nutritional methods of flea control will do much to protect children who are usually in closest contact with the family pet. Children breathe in vapors, absorb toxins through their skin, and seldom wash their hands after playing with pets. Children are at greater risk for neurological poisoning due to their small size and immature immune systems. For their size, children breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food than adults, increasing their intake of pesticides.

More Information

More information on safe flea control is available from the following organizations:

* New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NYCAP) 518-426-8246

* Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) 541-344-5044

* National Coalition Against Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP) 202-543-5450

* Washington Toxic Coalition (WTC) 206-632-1545

Dr. Robert and Susan Goldstein edit a newsletter, offer safe flea control products, and maintain a web site at Inquiries can be made to 1-800-622-0260.

New Organic Labeling

What, you may be asking, do fleas and organic labeling have in common? Both are relevant to this month’s topics of pet care, spring and gardening, but the more important connection deals with health risks from exposure to toxic chemicals in pet care products and the food supply.

Everyone is at least vaguely familiar with the concept of “organic” food, although its meaning may have several interpretations. I vividly recall some years ago encountering retired neighbors at the local supermarket. We were standing in the produce aisle next to the newly installed “organic” section of fruits and vegetables. I inquired what they thought about the supermarket offering organic produce. The wife responded, “Oh, you mean that stuff with bugs on it,” which left me temporarily speechless.

There is, however, a growing consumer demand for healthier food. This has fueled a steady 20% increase in demand for organic foods over the past several years. As profits rose the big agricultural conglomerates wanted a share of the organic foods market.

Corporate giants have little understanding of the concept behind organics and what it means to nourish the soil, tread lightly on the planet, treat farm animals humanely, use whole foods to restore and maintain health. The only “green” they are interested in harvesting is the color of money.

The organic food concept began in earnest during the 1960s with the back-to-the-land movement popularized in Mother Earth magazine and before that, Rodale’s Organic Gardening publication. Organic crops are raised without synthetic fertilizer and toxic pesticides. They are generally grown for a local market, not picked prematurely, waxed, dyed, or shipped long distances. There were variations in the organic practices around the country, though most organic growers adhered to basic guidelines drafted by regional certifiers.

In the early 1990s the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was given the task of developing a national standard to be used by all farmers and food processors that wished to use the organic label on their products. This was a cooperative venture between the NOSB, farmers, business, and consumers.

The agri-chemical industry, consisting of factory farms, food conglomerates, and the pesticide/chemical fertilizer industry represent a powerful economic force that exerts enormous influence at the highest levels of government. With the organic market growing, profits rising, and an opportunity to turn the new labeling requirements to their benefit, the industry wasted no time in helping the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) draw up guidelines that were the antithesis of what “organic” is all about.

Word got out that the USDA was going to include in the new organic labeling such unacceptable practices as toxic sludge fertilizer, irradiation, genetic engineering, confined factory farm practices, hormone and antibiotic drugs, high fees for participating growers and excessive fines for violators.

The USDA scheduled a hearing on the proposed organic labeling for March 1998, but was bombarded with more than 400,000 letters, faxes, emails, and phone calls, forcing them to extend the hearing date to May. This allowed the real organic community a little more time to prepare a strong and unified response to the USDA’s proposal that favored the special interests of agri-business. Many adjustments were made before a final set of standards was deemed acceptable.

The new national standard for food bearing the “organic” label includes the following:

* land used for organic crops must be free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, and sewage sludge for at least three years

* no irradiation

* no genetically engineered organisms (GMOs)

* no antibiotics or growth hormones in organic meat

* processed foods must be 95% organic by weight

* “made with” organic ingredients must be a minimum of 70% organic (6)

That’s the good news. The bad news is, now that government is involved, there is a ton of paperwork that threatens to undermine the small organic grower. A paper trail from seedling to harvest must accompany every variety of fruit and vegetable grown. Huge commercial farms usually have more office staff to handle paper work, and often grow fewer varieties of crops. On a small two to five-acre farm, as many as 30 or more varieties may be planted.

During the growing season the farmer works long hours with never enough help., and no time for filling out government forms for each different set of plants grown. If they neglect to cross a “t”, dot an “i”, miss a deadline, or in any way err on the required paperwork they could face fines as high as $10,000 p/day for inappropriately using the “organic” label even though their crops may be completely organic. Raising chemically-free wholesome food now comes second to filling out paper work.

The small farmer earning between $25,000 and $60,000 a year will not be able to survive daily fines for failure to keep up with the paperwork. Whereas large corporations who blatantly defy the new “organic” label requirements can easily cover the cost of the fines. They spend more than that on advertising and lobbying.

Is the government’s new organic certification process protecting small organic growers? Is it protecting the food supply? Is it guaranteeing that consumers get what they are paying for? Is it another layer of bureaucracy protecting big business?

The community of organic growers is in a quandary regarding how to survive this new blow to their livelihood. A vast majority of small growers will forsake the certification requirements rather than risk losing the farm to possible fines. Most will continue raising crops using the same high standards to produce nutritious pesticide-free food, but will no longer be able to use the “organic” label on their produce.

Small growers are seeking ways to continue being good stewards of the land while providing wholesome food. New ideas are emerging. In New York’s Hudson Valley where organic farming has really taken off, one local grower has founded an alternative program, Certified Naturally Grown (CNG),, that is gaining support from growers in Virginia, Connecticut, Alaska, Texas, Cornell University, and the Hudson Valley Chapter of the Sierra Club. (7)

“The biggest differences between CNG’s and the USDA’s regulations,” according to founder, Ron Khosla, are that “CNG tests for pesticide residue in plant tissue and soil which is not part of the national organic standards program — and that CNG actually performs its own inspections — creating a greater opportunity for rule-bending evidence to fall by the wayside.” (7) Khosla believes this new designation provides better protection for the consumer since both food and soil will be tested for pesticide residue, whereas the government’s plan merely relies on a grower’s signature affirming that organic regulations have been adhered to, which essentially proves nothing.

Blatant dishonesty from the tobacco industry, Enron, World Com, and others has left the American consumer suspicious of how well our regulatory agencies are able to protect public interests. Why should we expect anything different from the agri-chemical conglomerates that have now muscled their way into the profitable organics market?

The new national standard for certified organic labeling will not guarantee anything. It is still a case of buyer beware. Purchasing from local farms that continue to use organic methods even though they may no longer be able to legally use the organic label may still be the best way to get wholesome food. In the August 2002 issue of Total Wellness, Sherry Rogers, MD, recommends consumers who are not able to acquire organic staples in their community can order whole grains, beans, seeds, flours, nuts and more from Natural Lifestyle 1-800-752-2775. (8) Eat well to be well.


(1.) Goldstein, R, DVM, Flea-Free Forever, Phillips Pub. Inc., MD.

(2.) Hume, E, Bechamp or Pasteur?, Custodian Pub. Inc., CA, 1976.

(3.) Jrnl. of Pesticide Reform, Vol.17, No.3, Fall 1997.

(4.) Williams, RM, “Head Lice…” TLfDP, #201, Apr 2000.

(5.) Healthy Cell News, ALV Pub. Inc., AZ, June 1999.

(6.) “USDA Organics,” Sierra Mgz., Nov/Dec 2002.

(7.) Piperato, S., Chronogram Mgz., NY, Nov 2002.

(8.) Rogers, S, MD, Total Wellness, NY, Aug 2002.

COPYRIGHT 2003 The Townsend Letter Group

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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