Deadly or delicious
August 11, 2020

The Environmental Protection Agency approved a new chemical Monday for use in repelling mosquitos, ticks, and other disease-bearing insects. The newly approved chemical, nootkatone, is a nontoxic oil found in Alaskan yellow cedars (Cupressus nootkatensis) and grapefruits, and it is so aromatic and safe for humans it is used in foods and perfumes. "If you drink Fresca or Squirt, you've drunk nootkatone," Ben Beard, deputy director of the division of vector-borne diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tells The New York Times.

The CDC discovered that nootkatone repels mosquitos, ticks, bedbugs, and fleas, and might also work against lice, sandflies, and other pests, 25 years ago. In high enough concentrations, the oil can kill bugs resistant to synthetic insecticides like DDT and pyrethroids. And it last as long as the synthetic chemicals, unlike other plant-based oils, like citronella and peppermint oil, whose effects wear off after about an hour, says Iowa State University inset toxicology expert Joel Coats. Still, Coats said, his lab has found nootkatone to be "an impressive repellent but a weak insecticide."

The after Oregon State University and CDC scientists discovered the repellant properties of nootkatone, the CDC licensed its patent to a Swiss company, Evolva, the Times reports. Getting EPA approval to use the oil as an active ingredient in insect repellants or insecticides was too expensive a process until the Zika epidemic hit in 2015 and Congress set aside money for mosquito control. That funding "was the key to moving the boulder up the hill," Beard told the Times. Peter Weber

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