This news release from the Entomological Society of America promotes a study published in its journal about a mosquito repellent that comes in the midst of a cacophony of news reports about the Zika virus outbreak. The clip-on device consists of a very small fan that blows “a cloud” of insecticide around the wearer. The study is weak, and that carries over into the even weaker PR release. There are numerous problems with the release, from the lack of data to its over-blowing the results. It’s likely that if a person was wearing the device, it may not function as the device in the study performed. It borders on fabrication to claim, as this release does in the headline, “Clip-on device offers protection against mosquitoes that transmit Zika.” We’re not sure why a professional association of entomologists whose mission is to educate scientists, teachers and the public would promote a product that’s been around since 2009 as if it’s a new device created specifically for combating a new virus threat. Consumer Reports reviewed the device years ago and gave it a thumbs-down for effectiveness and safety.
The mosquito-borne Zika virus outbreak in Central and South America has been getting lots of media attention, some of it causing alarm, and that’s only going to grow following the recent announcement that President Barack Obama has requested $1.8 billion in emergency funding to combat the virus through vaccine development, mosquito control and public education. In addition, news media are reporting that there’s a possibility the virus may spread from a woman to her fetus, and that the virus could be transmitted through sexual relations. Without even understanding the nature and possible extent of the risks, companies and organizations may be looking for ways to cash-in on the scare while it’s a hot topic.
The release doesn’t provide any information about the device’s cost. A quick online search found the OFF! Clip-On starter pack going for $9.49 at Target. After the initial purchase, consumers must continue to buy refills and batteries. The monetary impact is huge if you consider the the volume of potential sales.
The news release makes a very modest result sound more beneficial than it might actually be. According to the release, “They found that the OFF! Clip-On caused high mosquito mortality and knockdown rates up to 0.3 meters from the device, enough to protect a single person wearing the device.”
What they don’t say is that the devices were suspended from stationary cages and were effective at repelling mosquitoes only within a foot or a foot and half away when the weather was calm. In other words, if you are using the device outside, don’t move. Also, it’s probably best not to count on the device if it’s windy out. As the product website warns, “if you move, allow a few minutes for the unit to rebuild its protection.”
In addition, as shared in the study, but not the release, the time to cause high mortality in mosquitos was in the 30 to 60 minute range, implying (or scientifically stating) that a person wearing the device would have to be 0.3 meters from the mosquito for a prolonged period of time without either of them moving.
We also aren’t given any quantification — percentage or absolute number — for the claim that the device caused “high mosquito mortality and knockdown.”
The release doesn’t give even a brief nod to harms. In addition to questions about the product’s effectiveness, Consumer Reports pointed out that the active ingredient in the device is metofluthrin, a neurotoxin.
“The label says, “Avoid breathing vapor,” but it’s hard to imagine how, with the repellent swirling around you,” according to Consumer Reports.
This seems to be a critical oversight as the vapors will be inhaled by the people who are supposedly being protected as well as the mosquito.
Johnson & Johnson’s product website has a list of warnings buried under the topic, “Precautionary Statements.”
“HAZARDS TO HUMANS AND DOMESTIC ANIMALS: CAUTION: Harmful if swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. Avoid contacting skin, eyes, or clothing with treated refill cloth. Avoid breathing vapor. Wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling and before eating, drinking, chewing gum, or using tobacco. Remove and wash contaminated clothing before reuse. Store away from food, beverages and pet food. Do not use indoors or in enclosed spaces. Do not touch unit with metal instruments or wet hands. Do not allow materials of any kind to cover the unit while it is in use. Replace refill only when unit is off.”
The researchers repeated the test three times, which is good. But the testing method hardly seems indicative of real-life situations. This may be a classic example of “in vitro” (test tube) effect that seems really good and that can be expected to fail in the “in vivo” (real life) situation. First, the researchers let the device “run” for an hour to increase its dissemination and effectiveness before taking measurements. They noted as a limitation that “drift” impacts efficacy. Second, the devices were suspended from stationary cages. For people wanting to use the device outdoors it requires a restriction on movement.
Because this release was distributed at a time when we’re seeing very dramatic and almost panicked news stories and press releases about the Zika virus it points to a form of disease mongering. The device and study seem to prey on the public fear about any exposure to the A. Egypti mosquito, the carrier of Zika and other viruses.
We wish the release was more clear about sponsorship. The release doesn’t explicitly say who funded the study but the implication is that it was sponsored by the Anastasia Mosquito Control District in Florida. An acknowledgement in the study states that readers shouldn’t view the study as a product endorsement. “This is a research report only and mention of specific names of commercial products does not imply endorsement by the Anastasia Mosquito Control District.”
In the release a study co-author is quoted scoffing at some of the alternatives, but without providing any comparison data. “Just look at all the bug zappers, repellent bracelets, sonic bug repellents, and other zany creations that wax and wane in popularity,” he said. Earlier reviewers also scoffed at this device.
The release should have mentioned somewhere that the alternatives aren’t all “zany.” For example, spray on bug repellent with the chemical DEET is widely recognized as an effective way to prevent mosquito bites.
It’s understood that the device is widely available.
The release doesn’t explain what’s novel about the study but it does imply novelty by saying it is a new delivery system for the OFF! product. The study itself makes a novelty claim when it states that it’s the first to test metofluthrin and the associated device in well-ventilated outdoor areas. “In this study, the OFF! Clip-on device was tested to determine if it will cause mortality in a well-ventilated area and if these mortality effects could be observed at an increasing range from the source.”
The device has been on the market since 2009 and there are competitors, too, so it’s not a novel product.
The headline for this release is dangerously misleading: “Clip-on device offers protection against mosquitoes that transmit Zika.” That statement is simply unjustifiable given the study’s lack of real-world significance. The last line in the release also seems particularly unjustifiable: “…it was nice for a change of pace that one of these devices could actually do some good.” We don’t think this study showed very much at all.