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Safety Review: Permethrin
[DRAFT - authors' names have been removed pending final edits and

Permethrin is one of a class of insecticides known as pyrethroids. Like other pyrethroids,permethrin kills insects by strongly exciting their nervous systems. In mammals it has beenshown to cause a wide variety of neurotoxic symptoms including tremors, incoordination, elevatedbody temperature, increased aggressive behavior, and disruption of learning (Cox 1998).
Permethrin is classified as a ìpotential human carcinogenî by the EPA, and tests with human cellshave shown it to be mutagenic. It is listed as a suspected endocrine disruptor, and both estrogen-like and antiandrogen-like effects have been observed in test animals. Studies have shown thatpyrethroid exposure may be neurotoxic during development and that human newborns may bemore sensitive to permethrin than adults. Children exposed to permethrin have developedimmune-mediated respiratory and dermal irritation. It has also been shown to reducecholinesterase activity in the kidneys and livers of test animals.
Permethrin is highly toxic to a wide variety of animals including honey bees (and other beneficialinsects), fish, aquatic insects, crayfish, and shrimp. It is especially toxic to cats. Studies haveshown that most cats (96%) exposed to permethrin develop toxic effects, including excitability,twitching, tremors, convulsions, muscular weakness, respiratory distress, vomiting, diarrhea,hypersalivation, and death.
The toxic effects of permethrin are often greatly increased when combined with other chemicals.
Several studies have linked a variety of health problems (commonly referred to as Gulf WarSyndrome) reported by 30,000 veterans who served in the Persian Gulf War, with exposure to acombination of permethrin, the anti-nerve gas drug pyridostigmine bromide, and the insectrepellent DEET.
CAS Number

use type ñ insecticide (PAN Database)
chem class ñ pyrethroid (synthetic insecticides structurally similar to pyrethrins, which
are naturally occurring insecticidal compounds. Many pyrethroids are suspected
endocrine disruptors.) (PAN Database)
European Classification
hazard symbols
N (dangerous for the environment) (EC Annex II; Gestis Database) risk phrases
R20/22 (harmful by inhalation and if swallowed) R43 (may cause sensitization by skin contact) R50/53 (very toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects inthe aquatic environment) (EC Annex III; Gestis Database) safety phrases
S13 (keep away from food, drink and animal feeding stuffs) S36/37/39 (wear suitable protective clothing, gloves and eye/face protection) S60 (this material and its container must be disposed of as hazardous waste) S61 (avoid release to the environment) (EC Annex IV; Gestis Database) WHO (World Health Organization) Classification
moderately hazardous (PAN Database) Toxicity (selected LD50s and LC50s)
Inhalation LC50 Rat : 485 mg/m„ (MP Biomedicals MSDS)
Inhalation LC50 Mouse : 685 mg/m„ (MP Biomedicals MSDS)
Oral LD50 Rat : 383 mg/kg (MP Biomedicals MSDS)
Oral LD50 Mouse : 424 mg/kg (MP Biomedicals MSDS)
Dermal LD50 Rabbit : >2 gm/kg (MP Biomedicals MSDS)
Health Effects (Warnings)
harmful if swallowed (Sigma-Aldrich MSDS) burning sensation, diarrhea, vomiting (NIOSH - ICSC 0312) inhalationÝ
may be irritating to mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract; harmful ifinhaled (Sigma-Aldrich MSDS).
can cause skin or respiratory reactions in people with hay fever or in peoplesensitive to ragweed or pollen; reactions may include irritation or inflammation ofthe skin (contact dermatitis), sneezing, nasal stuffiness, or asthmatic breathing(NPIC 1997).
may cause eye irritation (Sigma-Aldrich MSDS) risk of serious damage to eyes (MP Biomedicals MSDS) skin
may be harmful if absorbed through the skin (Sigma-Aldrich MSDS) may cause allergic skin reaction (Sigma-Aldrich MSDS) redness, burning sensation (NIOSH - ICSC 0312) acute exposure in adults has been shown to result in skin irritation (EPA 2006b;EPA-TEACH 2007; HHS 2003) exposure to permethrin may occasionally produce temporary numbing, tingling,and burning sensations of the skin (NPIC 1997) can cause skin or respiratory reactions in people with hay fever or in peoplesensitive to ragweed or pollen; reactions may include irritation or inflammation ofthe skin (contact dermatitis), sneezing, nasal stuffiness, or asthmatic breathing(NPIC 1997) immunity
experiments with laboratory animals indicate that the immune system ìappears tobe a sensitive target for permethrin activity.î ÝIngestion of permethrin reducesthe ability of immune system cells called T-lymphocytes to recognize andrespond to foreign proteins (Cox 1998).
doses equivalent to 1/100 of the LD50, have been shown to inhibit T-lymphocytesover 40 percent (Cox 1998).
permethrin ingestion has also been shown to reduced the activity of a secondtype of immune system cell, natural killer cells, by about 40 percent.(Blaylock etal. as cited by Cox 1998).
studies in adult humans and experimental animals have demonstrated thatpermethrin, like other pyrethroids, alters nerve function by altering the biochemistry of nerve membrane sodium channels (EPA 2006a, 2006b, EPA-TEACH 2007).
acute exposure in adults has been shown to result in dizziness, twitching, andnervous disorders (EPA 2006b; EPA-TEACH 2007; HHS 2003).
has complex effects on the nervous system in mammals; causes repetitive nerveimpulses, and also inhibits a variety of nervous system enzymes: ATPase: whose inhibition results in increased release of theneurotransmitter acetylcholine (Al-Rahji 1990 as cited by Cox 1998).
monoamine oxidase-A: the enzyme which maintains normal levels ofthree other neurotransmitters (Rao & Rao 1993 as cited by Cox 1998).
acetylcholinesterase: the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine (Rao &Rao 1995 as cited by Cox 1998).
inhibits the GABAA receptor (a nervous system receptor) producing excitabilityand convulsions (Ramadan et al. 1988a as cited by Cox 1998).
inhibits respiration in a manner similar to other neurotoxic drugs (Gassner et al.
1997 as cited by Cox 1998
at relatively high doses, neurotoxic symptoms of permethrin include tremors,incoordination, hyperactivity, paralysis, and an increase in body temperature,these symptoms can persist up to three days (IPCS 1989 as cited by Cox 1998).
cholinesterase activity
shown to reduce cholinesterase activity in the kidneys and livers of test animals(Khan et al. 2003).
other chronic effects
the liver is a sensitive target for permethrin effects. In an EPA summary of 17medium-term and long-term laboratory studies that exposed test animals topermethrin, effects on the liver were noted at the ìlowest effect levelî in all ofthem (EPA 1997 as cited by Cox 1998).
enlarged adrenal glands and increased kidney weights have been demonstratedin laboratory tests (EPA 1997 as cited by Cox 1998).
carcinogenicity Ý
classified by EPA as ìLikely to be Carcinogenic to Humansî by the oral route (thisclassification was based on two reproducible benign tumor types (lung and liver)in the mouse, equivocal evidence of carcinogenicity in Long-Evans rats, andsupporting structural activity relationships (SAR) information) (EPA 2006b) IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) Classification: Group 3: unclassifiable because the data are incomplete or ambiguous(PAN Database).
U.S. EPA Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) Carcinogen List: Suggested: Suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity, but not sufficient toassess human carcinogenic potential. This descriptor is appropriatewhen the evidence from human or animal data is suggestive ofcarcinogenicity, which raises a concern for carcinogenic effects, but isjudged not sufficient for a conclusion as to human carcinogenic potential(PAN Database).
EPA found that permethrin increased the frequency of lung tumors in femalemice, and increased the frequency of liver tumors in male and female mice (EPA1997 as cited by Cox 1998).
WHO (World Health Organization) reports that permethrin increased thefrequency of lung tumors in females in two out of the three mouse studies itreviewed (WHO 1990 as cited by Cox 1998).
two proposed molecular mechanisms could explain permethrinís carcinogenicity: permethrin reduces the activity of an enzyme involved in the breakdownof the amino acid tryptophan. This can lead to the buildup ofcarcinogenic tryptophan breakdown products (El-Touky et al. 1989 ascited by Cox 1998).
permethrin inhibits what is called ìgap junctional intercellularcommunicationî (GJIC), chemical communication between cells. GJICplays an important role in the growth of cells, and some cancerpromoting chemicals inhibit GJIC (Tateno et al. 1993 as cited by Cox1998).
shown to be mutagenic (damaging to genetic material) in tests with human cellcultures, hamster cells, and fruit fly larvae (Cox 1998).
in cultures of human lymphocytes (white blood cells), permethrin exposurecaused an increase in chromosome aberrations, chromosome fragments(Barrueco et al. 1992 as cited by Cox 1998), and DNA lesions (Surralles et al.
1995 as cited by Cox 1998
in hamster ovary cell cultures, permethrin exposure caused chromosomeaberrations (Barrueco et al. 1994 as cited by Cox 1998).
developmental or reproductive toxin
no available weight-of-the-evidence summary assessment (PAN Database).
evidence is accumulating that pyrethroid exposure may be neurotoxic duringdevelopment (Shafer et al. as cited by EPA -TEACH 2007).
there is concern for developmental neurotoxicity based on evidence ofneurotoxicity at high doses in a subchronic neurotoxicity study (EPA 2006b).
affects both male and female reproductive systems (Cox 1998). Ý shown to cause reduced testes weights in a long term feeding study of mice(EPA 1997 as cited by Cox 1998).Ý in females, permethrin exposure has caused embryo loss in pregnant rabbits(EPA 1997 as cited by Cox 1998) and in pregnant rats (Spencer & Berhane 1982as cited by Cox 1998).Ý endocrine disruptorÝ Ý
binds to receptors for androgen, a male sex hormone, in skin cells from humanmales, causing researchers to ìadvise protection from any form of contact oringestion of the pyrethroidsî (Eil & Nisula 1990 as cited by Cox 1998).
binds to a different receptor, called the peripheral benzodiazepine receptor, thatstimulates production of the male sex hormone testosterone (Ramadan et al.
1988b as cited by Cox 1998
test results suggest that permethrin may cause mitochondrial membraneimpairment in Leydig cells and disrupt testosterone biosynthesis by diminishingthe delivery of cholesterol into the mitochondria and decreasing the conversion ofcholesterol to pregnenolone in the cells, thus reducing subsequent testosteroneproduction (Zhang et al. 2007).
test results showed estrogen-like effects in female rats, but antiandrogen-likeeffects in males (Kim et al. 2005).
results of animal studies suggest that human newborns may be more sensitive topermethrin than adults (NPIC 1997).
recent studies of children have reported immunotoxic effects following exposureto pyrethroids, with increased incidence of anti-nuclear antibodies associatedwith autoimmune disease (Rosenberg et al. 1999 as cited EPA -TEACH 2007).
permethrin exposure may impact the immune system in children (EPA -TEACH2007); case reports indicated that children exposed to permethrin developedimmune-mediated respiratory and dermal irritation (Fuortes 1999 as cited by EPA-TEACH 2007).
exposure of toddlers to permethrin exceeded the U.S. EPA Level of Concern(LOC) when combined chronic exposure via dietary sources (food and drinkingwater) and short-term exposure via contact with permethrin-treated lawns andindoor surfaces (particularly with carpets in treated rooms) was taken intoaccount (EPA 2006b as cited by EPA -TEACH 2007); this led to new EPA risk mitigation measures (EPA 2006a, 2006b as cited by EPA -TEACH 2007);mitigation measures include discontinued use of sponge applications;discontinued use of broadcast, crack and crevice sprays on all residential indoorsurfaces (except for aerosol sprays); and concentration limits on aerosol andtotal release fogger formulations (EPA 2006a as cited by EPA -TEACH 2007).
Synergy with other chemicals
synergy between two or more chemicals occurs when their combined exposure causesmore adverse effects than the sum of their individual effects (as defined by Cox 1998).
Several studies have linked health problems reported by 30,000 veterans who served inthe Persian Gulf War, to exposure to a combination of permethrin, the anti-nerve gasdrug pyridostigmine bromide, and the insect repellent DEET (Abdel-Rahman et al. 2001;Abdel-Rahman et al. 2002; Abdel-Rahman et al. 2004; Abou-Donia et al. 1996; Abou-Donia et al. 2001; Baynes et al. 2002; Cox 1998; etc.) neurotoxic symptoms, including decreased activity, diarrhea, shortness of breath,tremors, inability to walk, and damage to nerves, were observed in hens exposed to allthree chemicals, but not in hens exposed to permethrin alone. Permethrin with justpyridostigmine bromide or just DEET also caused tremors and inability to walk, butsymptoms were not as severe (Abou-Donia et al. 1996 as cited by Cox 1998).
Animal toxicity
toxic to honey bees and other beneficial insects, fish, aquatic insects, crayfish, andshrimp; for many species, concentrations of less than one part per billion are lethal;causes deformities and other developmental problems in tadpoles, and reduces thenumber of oxygen-carrying cells in the blood of birds (Cox 1998).
cats - highly toxic to cats.
inappropriate use of PSOs (permethrin spot-on products) on cats can causesevere toxicity, and frequently result in convulsions and fatalities (Meyer 1999,Bates 2000, Gray 2000, Martin and Campbell 2000 as cited by Sutton et al.
most cats (over 96%) exposed to permethrin develop toxic effects (Sutton et al.
); clinical signs of feline permethrin toxicosis usually present within 3 hoursof exposure but may be delayed up to 72 hours (Merola and Dunayer 2006 ascited by Sutton et al. 2007).
symptoms of toxicity include excitability, twitching, tremor, hyperaesthesia,convulsions, muscular weakness, fasciculations, hyperthermia, respiratorydistress, vomiting, diarrhea, hypersalivation, anorexia, tachypnoea, death (Suttonet al 2007: Whittem 1995 as cited by Sutton 2007).
bees - highly toxic to honeybees, as well as other beneficial insects (EPA 2006a).
Aquatic toxicity
fish ñ Ýhighly toxic to both freshwater and estuarine aquatic organisms (EPA 2006a).
Ecological Toxicity
classified as ìhazardous wasteî under the European Waste Catalogue Ordinance (AVV)(Gestis Database).
classified as ìdangerous for the environmentî under European labeling (GestisDatabase).
classified as ìvery toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in theaquatic environmentî under European labeling (Gestis Database).
ground water contaminant - prevent escape into water, drainage, sewer, or ground
(Gestis Database); hazard for drinking water sources when only small quantities get into
groundwater (Gestis Database); classified as WGK 3 ìsevere hazard to watersî under the
European Administrative Regulation of Substances Hazardous to Water (VwVwS) (Gestis
Abdel-Rahman A, Shetty AK, and Abou-Donia MB. 2001. Subchronic dermal application of
N,N-diethyl m-toluamide (DEET) and permethrin to adult rats, alone or in combination,
causes diffuse neuronal cell death and cytoskeletal abnormalities in the cerebral cortex
and the hippocampus, and Purkinje neuron loss in the cerebellum
. Experimental Neurology.
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Abdel-Rahman A, Shetty AK, and Abou-Donia MB. 2002. Disruption of the blood-brain barrier
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a rat model of Gulf-War syndrome
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