You scratch your head, but no earth-rattling thoughts are forthcoming. Last week the
neighbor's kid tried on your Mountain Equipment Co-op hat, and now
your girlfriend's head itches, too. Ohmigod. Head lice. If the social
stigma doesn't do you in, imagine how nasty it will get if the bites
Chemical firms insist you
their toxins to stop scratching,
but it isn't true.
Left untreated, these bloodsucking insects can multiply, and
their bites may enlarge your lymph nodes and induce fever and severe
weight loss. And just as bad, your pharmacist or doctor will likely
steer you in a direction you don't want to go: chemical treatments.
If you don't want the stuff on your lawn, why would you put it on
The toxic shampoos prescribed to kill lice are poison to the
human nervous system, and there's new, though controversial,
evidence that they can throw your hormones out of whack as well.
Their most common ingredient, pyrethroids, don't even work very well
because lice, just like bacteria fed a steady diet of antibiotics,
have developed resistance to it.
The scary thing is that consumers might use more and more of it
to get poorer and poorer results. Pyrethroids are also dangerous for
people with allergies to chrysanthemums, ragweed and kerosene and
other petroleum derivatives.
Other readily available anti-lice potions contain acetone, the
same smelly agent that takes nail polish off, or lindane, a highly
toxic and persistent chemical that a number of anecdotal reports
have linked with seizures and death in exposed children. And to
double the dilemma, when you rinse your hair, lindane in particular
moves into the water supply and the food chain.
Does mother nature provide any answers? Health food stores and
some drug marts sell shampoos containing essential oils like tea
tree, eucalyptus and oregano, and while one would think they
wouldn't be as bad as laboratory brews, the long-term effects of
intensive use haven't been studied. Even holistic-minded delousers
say tea tree compounds have some similar properties to synthetic
chemicals, and over time lice could develop resistance to "natural"
insecticides as well.
What to do? Cutting-edge prevention and treatment is low-tech and
labor-intensive. The key is faithful and proper use of tweezers, a
magnifying visor and the crucial high-quality anti-lice comb.
We're talking deluxe stainless steel (thus boilable) models that
efficiently remove the noxious insects and their silvery white eggs
(nits) from your hair and clear up an infestation in a couple of
Combs are sold at drugstores, but the best are available at
the non-profit http://www.headlice.org/. What the
experts say "I don't agree that pyrethroids have low mammalian
toxicity. It's dose-related. Pyrethroids are based on a natural
substance but are chemically altered to persist (in the ecosystem).
They are neurotoxins. Lindane can affect the kidneys, liver and
pancreas as well as the endocrine system. My daughter's school had
lice. We used no chemicals -- it's not a big deal when you know what
you're doing. We used tea tree oil and combing. Do it like clockwork
and the lice just disappear." JULIA LANGER, World Wildlife Fund,
former director of toxicology programs
"Permethrins (synthetic pyrethroids) have an excellent safety
profile that has been extensively confirmed in clinical trials.
There are studies of lice developing resistance, but they all report
localized resistance -- as in one area of the city. The (U.S.)
Center for Disease Control says there is no satisfactory method of
getting rid of an infestation apart from chemical treatments.'' JANET WATSON, GlaxoSmithKline Inc., makers of R&C shampoo
and Kwellada-P creme rinse
"We can't exonerate head lice from the transmission of disease.
Still, there are many reports of deaths from pesticides (lindane).
We can't remove every chemical exposure from a child's life, so we
have to be careful about the ones we can control. The most effective
treatment is the traditional grandmother way -- screen vigilantly
and remove manually." DEBORAH ALTSCHULER, National Pediculosis
JOHN CLARK, PhD, director, Massachusetts Pesticide Analysis
Lab "People are under the illusion that just using a pesticide is
going to solve the problem, but you have to remove all nits and
lice. You need a special comb, pillow case and sheet washing, and
vacuuming of carpets."