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Safe Adventuring in Central America's Backcountry
Permethrin: A Low Toxicity Alternative to DEET Repellent For Jungle Trekkers
by Derek Parent

July/Julio 2000

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Researchers and trekkers planning a trip to tropical Latin America, Africa or Asia now have a low toxicity alternative to the toxic insect repellent DEET.

Permethrin -- the synthetic version of naturally occurring organic insect repellent pyrethrum, from the flowers of Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium -- has proven to be a long-lasting deterrent to scorpions, large spiders, disease- carrying insects and even snakes, in their quest to enter your sleeping chamber. Permethrin, a nerve cell membrane agent highly effective against a broad range of insects and arthropods, has been scientifically shown to have low toxicity to humans but is lethal on contact by disease vectors such as malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Permethrin's naturally occuring cousin, Pyrethrum, is available as a concentrate for treating one's clothing and gear, but has an effective lifespan of only one or two days when compared to permethrin's weeks.

Clothing, mosquito nets and tents are considered to be industrially coated to high deterrent levels when coating exceeds 0.5mg per square meter. Recoating of tents and clothing after industrial application is not needed for at least six months -- even after periodic washings and exposure to rain storms. Permethrin should not be applied directly to the skin as the chemical carriers in the spray or liquid containers can penetrate the skin's pores and may be toxic. Drying times of two hours plus allow for these carriers to be safely evaporated away from coated nets and clothing sprayed in the outdoors.

Jungle campers must coat their primary tent structure outdoors [the netting part of one's tent not the rain fly] with permethrin spray using two applications. Allow a minimum of two hours to dry between applications in dry climates, and four hours drying time in humid tropical type climates. Users of typical camping store bought permethrin, sold in six ounce aerosol cans, can expect a double application to clothing, including socks, to be fully effective three to four weeks in the field. Potentially deadly jungle insects such as centipedes, scorpions, spiders and army ants can cling to the underpart of your tent's rain fly, stealthily dropping off on campers exiting the untreated tent.

Hats, socks, pants, shirts, shorts, leather sandals and inside and outside of hiking boots should also be sprayed. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes can easily spear the unwary through most clothing, and ticks attach themselves to your clothing quickly, scrambling to your skin to inject their parasitic hosts through a bite. Permethrin has a very poor skin absorption characteristic and very low toxicity with rare occurence of side effects in humans.

Permethrin as a very low toxicity long lasting repellent has just started to be recognized by civilian outdoor enthusiasts, where as it has been used by military for years now. As this alternative to highly toxic DEET becomes more widely known and used, thousands of North Americans and Europeans venturing to malaria-infiltrated tropical countries, such as Central America, will avoid infection and potentially costly medical bills upon their return.

This product is available in 6oz aerosol spray for coating clothing, nylon tents and mosquito nets by mail order from Campmor's on-line web-site ( and at most large camping outfitters. A topical cream version at 5% concentration is available without prescription from most pharmacies.


Cover "Safe Adventuring in Central America's Backcountry" is a new column, penned by Derek Parent, author of La Mosquitia: A Guide To The Land of Savannas, Rain Forests and Turtle Hunters and webmaster of A Walkabout In The Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve. He can be reached via email



g Eco Travels in Honduras
g Exploring the Mundo Maya
b A Walkabout In The Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve
b Jungle Camping - Derek Parent

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