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Come Out of the Woodwork, Start Nitpicking
The manufacturers' claim is that it just takes one application. Those pesky lice just roll over and die. But parents have been finding they don't.

Reynolds Holding
Sunday, April 4, 1999
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.

They bring hell to your home in broad daylight. They enter through the front door, right before your eyes, but almost always slide by unnoticed. They take control quickly, using your clothes, jumping on the furniture, nestling in the sheets and pillows.

Getting them out is a long and painful process that rips the house apart and unhinges the most stable family relationships. Worst of all, more likely than not, they come back. Again and again.

And if you have to ask who they are, you've never made the acquaintance of lice.

The ugly word itself sends chills up parental spines and tears down the cheeks of hapless schoolchildren. A lice infestation is not the worst thing that can happen to you. But it's close.

So it was probably inevitable that the simmering angst of lice-tired parents would explode into our society's ultimate expression of righteous indignation: a lawsuit.

Not just any lawsuit, but a class action. An amalgamation of all Californians forced to combat the sesame-seed sized insects by purchasing within the past four years any of four over-the-counter lice-lynching remedies: NIX, RID, CLEAR and A-200.

The problem, according to the suit filed by attorney Kevin Holl in San Francisco Superior Court, is that these products don't work. They contain either pyrethrum -- derived from chrysanthemums -- or permethrin, a similar synthetic compound. Both seemed to be killing lice just fine until the lice did a Charles Darwin and developed resistance to the chemicals.

The evidence for the products' impotence is strong, though not incontrovertible. In support of its claims, the suit cites several recent studies:

-- In March 1998, the National Pediculosis (that's Latin for lice infestation) Association said early results of a Harvard study showed that permethrin wasn't killing lice in Boise, Idaho, or Cambridge, Mass.

-- Doctors at the University of Miami medical school reported recently that the lice they had collected could ``crawl around for hours without slowing down at all'' on cotton soaked with permethrin.

-- Last year, Dr. Sheila Fallon- Friedlander of the University of California at San Diego told the American Academy of Dermatology that ``We are seeing outbreaks of permethrin-resistant pediculosis throughout the United States.''

The angry consumers-turned-litigants would not have much of a case if the makers of lice remedies merely sold ineffective products. The trouble is that the makers brazenly tout the virtues of their products with phrases such as ``kills lice and their eggs'' and ``a single application . . . prevents reinfestation for 14 days.'' And this cocksure puffery, says the suit, violates laws against false warranties and misleading ads.

The companies, of course, say the claims are nonsense.

Jason Ford of Warner-Lambert, maker of NIX, contends that ``the product is extremely beneficial for consumers trying to combat head lice.'' And Pfizer spokesman Robert Padgett says, ``There's nothing on the market that is more effective in treating lice'' than RID, the company's lice remedy.

Which may be true, but give us a break. We who have ruined our weekends bagging contaminated stuffed animals, washing every piece of cloth in the house and picking through the delicate strands of our children's hair suspect these costly chemicals are about as effective as butter on a burn.

Many parents have grown so frustrated with NIX and RID and the rest that they desperately turn to frightening home remedies.

Some smear mayonnaise or olive oil or margarine on the heads of their children to smother the lice -- with some success. But in 1997, a 13-year-old Iowa girl was burned severely after her mother doused her lice-ridden head with gasoline and the fumes ignited. A 6-year-old Oklahoma girl suffered cardiac and respiratory arrest after her mother's boyfriend soaked her hair in an agricultural insecticide.

Obviously, some of these people are idiots, but the point they make is clear. The absence of a fail-safe method for killing lice is driving tens of millions of parents and children to dangerous distraction.

Manufacturers know this, but they do little about it. Maybe a class- action lawsuit with the potential to put substantial corporate profits at serious risk will prod them to do better.


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