Fighting Head Lice with Lindane: Does Using a Banned Pesticide on Kids Make Sense?

Head louse by Eran Finkle, via Flickr.

Head louse by Eran Finkle, via Flickr.

I’m a public health nurse and I have a weekly public radio program, Healthstyles, in New York City. Fifteen years ago, when my kids were preschoolers, there was a local outbreak of head lice, and parents kept asking me to do a show about it. I thought it was a boring topic. They persisted and I did the show.

During that radio show I invited listeners to call in; in radio-speak, “the board lit up.” A mom called and said she’d applied an OTC shampoo for head lice, in three separate applications, to her six-year-old son’s head, but he still had nits and live lice—what should she do? A father reported that he’d applied another OTC  shampoo for head lice to his nine-year-old daughter’s head, wrapped her head in plastic wrap, and let her sleep through the night that way; he asked, “Was that dangerous to do?” Producing this segment opened my eyes to how little we knew about the health effects of such treatments on children. It was a nursing “Aha!” moment: head lice weren’t just a big nuisance, they were a serious public health issue.

When over-the-counter applications fail, parents often turn to their child’s primary care practitioner, who writes a prescription for lindane, malathion, or permethrin. Of these three different pesticides, lindane has recently been getting all the press. So what do we know about lindane? It’s nasty. It’s a toxic organochlorine and it’s bioaccumulative. Studies report that exposure to lindane has been linked to seizures, developmental disabilities, and hormone disruption. It is known to be particularly hazardous to children.  In 2003 the FDA required manufacturers to add a black-box warning label (the FDA’s strongest warning) to alert people to the risk of serious adverse events associated with the product’s misuse and overuse. In 2006, the EPA had sufficient evidence to announce that it was “cancelling the registrations of all pesticide products containing the pesticide lindane,” in effect banning lindane’s use in agriculture.

Internationally, more than 50 countries have also banned lindane. In May representatives from the Office of Environmental Policy at the U.S. Department of State attended the fourth Conference of the Parties to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)  in Geneva. Petitions from around the country were sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, requesting that her representatives voice their support for a total ban on lindane. Because the United States signed but has not ratified the treaty, it is not a voting member but participates as an observer—a powerful one.

A source at Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) who was at the Geneva meeting reported that delegates for Kenya and India spoke out against a complete ban and wanted the right to keep using lindane in agriculture. Reportedly, India and China are the only two countries still producing lindane. The Convention delegates voted for a total ban (by the way, Kenya and India didn’t get what they wanted). A media frenzy followed, with some reports saying that lindane had been banned globally.

But when you read the word “banned,” do you think it means now or in five years? Because in the U.S., that ban won’t start until 2014. An exemption to the ban allows lindane to continue to be used pharmaceutically to treat lice and scabies in children and adults.  The exemption also allows countries with stockpiles of lindane to continue selling it until 2014.

Much as there was dissension about the ban at the Geneva conference, there’s dissension in the nursing community about how to manage kids with head lice. So if we get stuck on arguing the rightness or the wrongness of the Stockholm ban, or on whether the exemption is justifiable or not, we miss the facts: more than 50 countries and the State of California have banned lindane. In the 1990s veterinarians knew enough to voluntarily stop using lindane on animals. We have the science, we have the evidence—as nurses let’s do what we need to do to protect the children.

—Barbara Glickstein, MPH, MS, RN, is an independent broadcast journalist in NYC and a member of the board of Project Kesher. She is also on the editorial board of the American Journal of Nursing.

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2016-11-21T13:27:46+00:00 May 27th, 2009|nursing perspective|7 Comments

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  2. Dr.Sharon Ufberg June 3, 2009 at 12:05 am

    This is so important Barbara. Practitioners from all fields should be helping nurses spread the word about information such as this that is a real public health issue. Consider posting something on – another place to spread the word. Bravo to you- Sharon

  3. susan Luck June 1, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    This is such an important issue for nurses, especially those of us who work with children, moms, and in communities.
    The idea that a chemical so toxic as to be banned as a pesticide in our food supply, can be forced by schools to be used on the scalps of children, the most vulnerable to toxic exposures. In addition, toxic pesticides are sprayed frequently in classrooms to “protect” children from little critters. With the cumulative effects of multiple exposures,is it any wonder why we are witnessing so many behavioral developmental,and health problems in children today.

    Susan Luck
    Community Health Nurse Educator

  4. Shannon Rose June 1, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    This does not make sense at all. This ban should be in effect now, not in 2014.

  5. Shawn Kennedy May 29, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    van Rensburg’s comment is a terrible indictment of health care. This is not a new issue – AJN reported on it back in 2003 (go to for the article and to for a Viewpoint by Marion Moses). Nurses (especially school nurses, pediatric nurses and camp nurses) need to “dig deeper” and understand the dangers of what they might be recommending to parents. Blindly following guidelines is never a good idea.

  6. Sharon van Rensburg May 28, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    My son used Lindane which until April 2009, was available in South Africa, not just OTC, but off the shelf without any warnings on the box or bottle. After about 6 months with a handful of uses, we noticed unexplained bruises appearing all over his body. He became exhausted and had fevers. His body had gone into complete bone marrow failure with Very Severe Aplastic Anaemia (VSAA) which is known to be caused by Lindane. He has required a bone marrow transplant in order to survive. The shampoos, Gambex and Quellada, are still available in South Africa, without a prescription, although they are now kept behind the counter. Lindane was banned in South Africa years ago for uses in Agriculture, but continues to be freely available to use on our children.

  7. […] the Charts American Journal of Nursing weblog « Fighting Head Lice with Lindane: Does Using a Banned Pesticide on Kids Make Sense? Diana Mason, AJN’s Editor-in-Chief, Leaving the Journal May 28, 2009 Diana Mason at a […]

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