Toxic Pet Collars
Air Date: Week of May 27, 2022
Flea and tick-borne diseases can be very dangerous for pets. However, some approaches to protecting pets, like the Seresto flea collar, have faced scrutiny for their potential safety hazards. (Photo: dave.see, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
In the past decade, the EPA has received over 98,000 reports of harm and over 2500 reports of pet deaths connected to one brand of pesticide-containing flea collars, Seresto. But the EPA has never issued any warnings or recalls of Seresto collars. Nathan Donley is the Environmental Health Science Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued EPA over Seresto collars, and he joins Host Bobby Bascomb to discuss.
O’NEILL: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Aynsley O’Neill.
BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb.
Here in flea and tick season, many pet owners may be reaching for collars treated with pesticides or topical gels–to protect their furry friends. Some pet collars contain pesticides that are neurotoxins designed to kill insects, but they can also harm mammals including the dogs who wear them. In the past decade, the EPA has received over 98,000 reports of harm and over 2,500 reports of pet deaths connected with one brand of flea collars, Seresto. But the EPA has never issued any warnings or recalls about Seresto collars. Under pressure from the Center for Biological Diversity, the EPA has enlisted the help of the FDA to analyze the incident report data. And the Inspector General for the EPA is investigating the possibility that EPA violated federal law by failing to take action against Seresto flea collars given the concern. For more, I’m joined now by Nathan Donley, the Environmental Health Science Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, that sued the EPA over these collars and first brought the issue to light. Nathan, welcome to Living on Earth!
DONLEY: Yeah, thanks for having me.
BASCOMB: How are these collars still allowed on the market? I mean, what's happening here?
DONLEY: Well, I think one reason is EPA has no triggers in place for when reports of poisoning require corrective action. And this is the case both for pets and for humans. I mean, if you call into a poison control center, and report a problem with a product, you'd think that that information is being put to good use by our country's regulators. And that is not the case when it comes to any pesticide product in this country. EPA simply compiles poisoning reports, but they rarely ever do anything with them. And the Seresto saga is case in point. Again, you've got like, 100,000 people who have called the authorities about just this one product alone, and nothing has been done for the last 10 years. I mean, if that doesn't spur action, then, you know, what will? EPA still hasn't answered our question of how many dead pets is too many? Is it 2,000 or 5,000? Or 10,000? They don't know, because they've never used these data in any meaningful way before.
BASCOMB: And I mean, how safe is it to assume that there could be quite a lot more than 100,000 actual harms? I mean, people may not necessarily associate this collar with the reaction that they're seeing in their pet.
DONLEY: Yeah, I think that is very common. And EPA actually recognizes how common this is. In the case of pesticide incidents, they estimate that for every pesticide incident that is reported, there's about 25 that go unreported, because if you can imagine just the stress going on when your pet is experiencing some sort of illness, the last thing on your mind is to try and, you know, figure out what happened the last few days and figure out who to call.
BASCOMB: The Center for Biological Diversity actually filed a lawsuit recently against the EPA to get documents pertaining to the safety of these pet collars. The documents included internal emails from the EPA, and I understand that you went through those, and were pretty surprised with what you found. Can you tell us about that, please?
DONLEY: Yeah, absolutely. We put in a public records request for communications regarding Seresto. And what we got back was incredibly surprising. People were extremely candid in emails saying they think this product should be banned, saying that they hope the lid is blown off of this travesty of this product staying on the market for so long, allegations about scientists being ignored, and people actually being told not to put their concerns about this product in emails. These are just things you rarely see when you get public records emails from federal employees. And so what it really showed to us is that there is a lot of internal dissent within this agency, with the career scientists at one end, you know, screaming about the harms of this product, and then the managers and the decision makers on the other end, who are, you know, seemingly not interested in what their own scientists have to say, and more interested in having more and more meetings with the maker of Seresto. And so this is just really indicative of how the pesticide office operates is that industry concerns generally trump public health concerns.
BASCOMB: And to what degree is the pesticide office, you know, acting on its own in this? I mean, we did a story a few weeks ago about the new Chemicals Division at the EPA sounding the alarm that the chemical industry had an oversized influence at EPA. Career scientists, they said, were being instructed to basically look the other way, when chemicals came up that they had some concerns about. It kind of sounds like these pet collars may be an example of that sort of, you know, "nothing to see here" ethos at the EPA.
DONLEY: It really is. This has been a perennial problem with this agency for many decades now that never gets fixed, even despite changing administrations, this office keeps acting with impunity, and putting the concerns of the pesticide industry over the concerns of the public and people's health. And it's just not in alignment with their mission. And, you know, I keep hearing rhetoric from this administration that things are going to change. But we have yet to see that. I hope this administration will take these concerns seriously, because this affects the health of every single person in this country.
BASCOMB: And what kind of response have you seen from EPA now that you have these emails and you know, these pretty serious allegations of not following through on their duties there?
DONLEY: Well, EPA management has been very quiet. Thankfully, we just found out that the EPA Office of Inspector General, which is a watchdog agency, is launching an investigation into this issue here based in part in a lot of these emails, looking into whether EPA violated federal law by not taking action on this product. So that investigation will take some time, but we're hopeful that you know getting an outside set of eyes on this is really going to shine a light on just how egregious it is that nothing has been done on this product in 10 years.
BASCOMB: You mentioned earlier that there's no trigger for these types of concerns. But what is the evaluation process like at the EPA to determine the safety for these types of products? And how does that compare to say the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, when they're looking at products for public use?
DONLEY: The typical study requirement for bringing a flea collar or, you know, flea and tick product on the market is to do a study on about a dozen dogs in a laboratory. So that's the bare minimum requirement of testing for these products. We're rarely talking about more than a couple of dozen animals at most that these products are being tested on. These tests are generally done on one breed. You know, for dogs, it's often the Beagle, which is a very hardy breed and generally not as sensitive to chemicals as some other breeds are. So, you can understand why pesticide companies would want to use beagles as a test dog. And that's it. And then, you know, with humans, the toxicity tests are generally done on mice and rats, because of course, we can't test these things on humans for good reason. So, EPA regulates some flea and tick medications, they regulate the collars, the flea collars, as well as the spot on treatments. So, these are the little droplets you put on the back of your pet's neck. So, anything that kind of goes on the outside of the animal EPA has jurisdiction over, and FDA does regulate some flea and tick medications as well. They regulate the oral medications, so the ones that the pet actually ingests and eat, which protects against fleas and ticks as well. And so, you know, the FDA obviously has a lot more experience with regulating things like drugs and medicines. And so, what they will do is for oral medications, they will require actually a clinical trial be undertaken of about 200 dogs of differing breeds. So, it gives you a much better sense of just the type of oversight that happens at FDA, much more scientifically robust than, you know what EPA requires.
BASCOMB: Well, so it's obvious now I think that pet owners should probably avoid Seresto collars. But what is a better alternative? Especially, you know, we're heading into summer now and fleas and ticks can be a really serious health concern.
DONLEY: Yeah, that's a great question. And if there's one thing that I hope your listeners hear, it's that it's okay to use flea and tick treatments on your pets. Don't let this one product scare you away. There are millions of dogs in this country that are using these products that are doing just fine. And tick-borne diseases are no joke. I mean, they can really harm or kill your pet. And if anyone has had a dog that's allergic to fleas, like my dear old dog was, you know just how awful their life would be without these products. There are a few products that are outliers in the number of incidents that they cause. Those need to be scrutinized tremendously and taken off the market accordingly. And that's not happening right now. But as I mentioned before, you know, FDA does regulate some flea and tick medications, and they do a much, generally a much better job of making sure these products are safe. Unfortunately, the oral meds are a bit more expensive. And they require a prescription from a vet. And of course, you know, feeding your pet pesticides is something that a lot of people are not comfortable with, so. But they have undergone much better testing in general and they do undergo post-market monitoring much better than the products that EPA regulates. So, you know, again, have a candid conversation with your vet, tell them about your concerns. And hopefully you guys can come up with a plan that is best for you and your pet.
BASCOMB: Nathan Donley is the Environmental Health Science Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. Nathan, thank you for your time today.
DONLEY: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
BASCOMB: We reached out to Elanco, the maker of Seresto collars but didn’t hear back by our deadline. However, a spokeswoman for the company, Keri McGrath Happe is quoted in the Missouri Independent on May 23 as saying, “Elanco unequivocally continues to stand behind the safety profile of Seresto as a proven solution to help protect dogs and cats from fleas and ticks” The EPA did reply with a statement that says in part, “EPA will use incident information to determine whether the continued registration of these pet collars still meets the legally required standard of no unreasonable adverse effects on the environment, taking into account the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of the use of the pesticide.” You can see EPA’s full statement on the Living on Earth website, loe dot org.
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