Most kids are back to school now, and one of the unfortunate realities parents have to deal with this time of year is lice infestations. It always amazes me that lice shampoos made with harmful pesticides such as lindane and malathion are still readily available.
As the mother of an active 4-year-old pre-schooler, it makes me crazy. How can this be?
Let's take a closer look at one of these chemicals: lindane. This was one of the first pesticides I worked on when I started at PAN years ago. Our office, working closely with PAN International partners, was instrumental in winning a global lindane ban under the Stockholm Convention.
Global teamwork wins lindane ban
It's a perfect example of PAN's global power at work. Partners from around the world — from Alaska to Argentina to the Russian Arctic — came together to make the case that it was time for lindane to go.
As part of this campaign, PAN activists from North America served government officials from the U.S., Canada and Mexico a "lindane lunch" back in 2005, showcasing foods known to be contaminated with lindane. On the menu were Arctic Indigenous traditional foods such as salmon and halibut, plus common foods like pickles, mixed nuts and chocolate chip cookies. Breastmilk, often found to be contaminated with lindane and its breakdown products, was exhibited as well.
Despite all the evidence, the maker of lindane lice shampoo insists it's necessary & safe
The Mexican government was the first in the region to agree to ban all uses, and then went on to propose lindane's global ban under the Stockholm Convention. Here in the U.S., PAN’s work helped convince EPA to withdraw all agricultural uses of lindane in 2006. California had already banned the use of lindane for lice and scabies control way back in 2001, with no public health emergencies resulting.
Yet despite clear evidence that lice control alternatives work, and the international agreement to get rid of lindane altogether, the maker of these shampoos still doggedly insists that lindane is necessary and safe for use on children's heads.
Kids' health effects well documented
Lindane is a known neurotoxin that can cause many health harms in children, whose growing bodies are much more vulnerable to pesticides than adults. These health impacts include seizures, convulsions and in some instances even death.
In a recent news article, Deborah Altschuler, the president of the National Pediculosis Association (NPA), a nonprofit group that advocates on head lice issues, said she has collected more than 1,000 reports dating from the 1980s linking lindane use to seizures, behavioral problems and leukemia among other problems.
NPA has developed a specially designed comb that sidesteps all these risks, and works just as well to tackle lice. According to Deborah:
Combing is the safest and most cost effective approach that accomplishes what chemicals cannot. It enables families to be self-reliant, proactive, and preventive. It allows for regular screening and early detection which makes the combing approach even more practical and realistic.
Combing with lice combs — like the one developed by NPA — is a low-cost, effective method that has been used by people around the world for ages. Growing up in India, I remember my aunt combing through my hair with a lice comb every so often to get rid of lice and nits. It was very effective, and I was lice- free through my school years. I'm getting a lice comb for my daughter as well.
Growing up in India, I remember my aunt combing through my hair to get rid of lice and nits. It worked.
NPA and other groups highlighting the health risks of lindane products have actually been harassed by lindane manufacturers, despite the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warning the companies against their misleading advertising minimizing the risks of lindane.
Defending their profits
Even in the face of compelling evidence of health harms for kids — and the fact that there are great alternatives available that help get rid of lice — Wockhardt USA is still aggressively promoting their lindane shampoo (also known as "Kwell"). Even though experts from around the world have agreed this chemical is too dangerous to have on the planet, Wockhardt has the gall to brush off concerns by saying anything you use on or in your body has the potential for adverse effects!
Sounds like this is a case where the profits from selling lice shampoos are too lucrative for solid science to overcome bottom line interests. As parents, we can choose not to put pesticides on our children's heads once we know the facts — but the FDA needs to step in and protect all U.S. children from pesticides like lindane in pharmaceutical products.
In the U.S, we're not allowed to use lindane on our pets, but (in all states but California) it’s still OK to put on our children's heads! As a mom — and as a first-hand witness to effective non-lindane strategies for lice elimination — I have to say I think this is just crazy.