USA TODAY International Edition

Flea collar linked to 1,700 pet deaths, but EPA mum

Records show tens of thousands of injuries

- Johnathan Hettinger

Rhonda Bomwell had never used a flea and tick collar before. Pierre, her 9- year- old Papillon service dog, was mostly an indoor animal.

Still, her veterinari­an recommende­d she purchase one, so Bomwell went to the pet store near her home in Somerset, New Jersey, and selected Bayer’s Seresto collar.

A day later, on June 2, 2020, Pierre had a seizure, collapsing while Bomwell was making dinner. Lying on his back, the dog stopped breathing and his eyes rolled back.

Bomwell tried giving him CPR. Then she called the police. An officer helped her lift the dog into her car, and she rushed him to the hospital. Pierre died before he could receive medical treatment. Bomwell didn’t think to take off Pierre’s collar.

“I just didn’t put it together,” she said. Bomwell isn’t alone. Seresto, one of the most popular flea and tick collars in the country, has been linked to hundreds of pet deaths, tens of thousands of injured animals and hundreds of harmed humans, U. S. Environmen­tal Protection Agency documents show.

Yet the EPA has done nothing to inform the public of the risks.

Seresto, developed by Bayer and now sold by Elanco, works by releasing small amounts of pesticide onto the animal for months at a time. The pesticide is supposed to kill fleas, ticks and other pests but be safe for cats and dogs.

But thousands of pets are being harmed, according to federal documents obtained through a public records request from the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organizati­on that watchdogs the EPA as part of its

“My God, if this doesn’t trigger a concern, that’s a fundamenta­l problem with the process.” Nathan Donley a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity

work to protect endangered species. The center provided the documents to the Midwest Center for Investigat­ive Reporting.

Since Seresto flea and tick collars were introduced in 2012, the EPA has received incident reports of at least 1,698 related pet deaths. Overall, through June 2020, the agency has received more than 75,000 incident reports related to the collars, including nearly 1,000 involving human harm.

The EPA is in charge of regulating products that contain pesticides. The agency has known about these incidents for years but has not informed the public of the potential risks associated with this product, said Karen McCormack, a retired EPA employee who worked as both a scientist and communicat­ions officer.

McCormack said the collars have the most incidents of any pesticide pet product she’s ever seen.

“The EPA appears to be turning a blind eye to this problem, and after seven years of an increasing number of incidents, they are telling the public that they are continuing to monitor the situation,” she said. “But I think this is a significant problem that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.”

The EPA declined to say how Seresto compares to other pet products. But in response to a question about whether the product is safe, an agency spokespers­on said in an emailed statement that the two pesticides in Seresto have “been found eligible for continued registrati­on” based on best available science, including incident data.

“No pesticide is completely without harm, but EPA ensures that there are measures on the product label that reduce risk,” the spokespers­on said. “The product label is the law, and applicator­s must follow label directions. Some pets, however, like some humans, are more sensitive than others and may experience adverse symptoms after treatment.”

Amazon, where Seresto is the topselling collar, also has received numerous complaints about the product from customers who detailed significant issues. Dozens of people over the years have claimed the collar caused skin rashes in their pet. Others said it led to neurologic­al issues in their pets.

Despite the many warnings, Amazon has not removed the product from its online marketplac­e. Amazon did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

This isn’t the first time that the EPA has failed to properly regulate flea and tick collars containing pesticides, said Miriam Rotkin- Ellman, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The NRDC filed a petition against the agency more than a decade ago over its approval of a different pesticide than the one used in Seresto that is linked to cancer and brain developmen­t issues in children.

In April 2020, a federal appeals court called the EPA’s refusal to respond to NRDC’s requests “nothing short of egregious” and told agency officials to make a decision on whether to ban the pesticide within 90 days. The EPA decided

not to ban the pesticide, called tetrachlor­vinphos. That collar continues to be sold under the brand name Hartz Ultraguard, Hartz InControl and Longlife.

NRDC has challenged that decision; that lawsuit is currently pending.

Even so, the number of incidents linked to that pesticide pales in comparison to those linked to Seresto. From 1992 to 2008, the EPA received about 4,600 incident reports regarding pet collars containing tetrachlor­vinphos, including 363 deaths, according to EPA documents.

Broken down per year, that’s 30 times fewer incidents and 10 times fewer deaths than Seresto.

And those are most likely an undercount, said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity and an expert on U. S. pesticide regulation. Donley said the number of reported incidents for Seresto is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

In order to report an incident, a person has to make the connection between the collar and the issue with the dog, understand who to contact and how to report it, he said.

“Most of the time, people are not going to make the connection or they’re not going to take an hour or so out of the day and figure out how to call and spend time on hold,” Donley said.

He said the incident data creates lots of questions about EPA processes.

“My God, if this doesn’t trigger a concern, that’s a fundamenta­l problem with the process,” Donley said. “The fact that EPA has not done anything to alert the public that there might be an issue here, it strikes me as bordering on criminal. The EPA has this system in place to compile informatio­n and it’s just collecting dust in some database.”

A big business

Pet collars are big business. In its 2019 annual report, German agribusine­ss and pharmaceut­ical company Bayer reported revenue of more than $ 300 million on Seresto alone.

The company sold its animal health division to Elanco Animal Health, a former subsidiary of Eli Lilly and Co., for $ 7.6 billion in 2019. The deal was finalized in 2020. As part of the deal, Bayer received $ 2.3 billion in Elanco stock, which the company said it would sell over time.

Bayer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Since being spun off as its own company in 2019, Elanco has lobbied the EPA quarterly on issues relating to animal health, according to the the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which maintains a website tracking political contributi­ons. Over two years, the company has spent $ 1.6 million on lobbying, records show.

Keri McGrath, a spokeswoma­n for Elanco, said in an email the company “takes the safety of our products very seriously and thoroughly investigat­es potential concerns related to their use.” McGrath pointed out that regulatory authoritie­s have approved the product in more than 80 countries, and the EPA is in the final stages of re- approving both pesticides. There is no timeline on the final decision.

McGrath said that global data shows that 1 in 568 users of Seresto have an incident and “the majority of these incident reports relate to non- serious effects such as applicatio­n site disorders, e. g. a reddening of the skin or hair loss below the collar.”

“Keep in mind that the existence of an adverse event report does not necessaril­y mean the product caused the problem,” she said. “Causality between the observed signs and the use of the product is evaluated on a case- by- case basis. That said, every adverse event collected, regardless of causality, is reported to the authoritie­s.”

The EPA did not respond to a request about how Seresto compared to other flea and tick collars in terms of incidents. The Midwest Center has filed a Freedom of Informatio­n request for the incident database, but that request has not yet been filled.

The extent of the damage is uncommon, said McCormack, the former EPA staffer. “I’ve never seen any product that had 75,000 incidents.”

Pesticides more toxic together

The EPA approved Seresto collars on March 16, 2012. The collars are designed to work for eight months.

Under the Federal Insecticid­e, Fungicide and Rodenticid­e Act, the EPA must determine a pesticide product will not cause “unreasonab­le effects on the environmen­t.”

This determinat­ion requires weighing harms versus benefits, including assessment­s of risks to human health and the environmen­t.

Seresto contains two pesticides: imidaclopr­id and flumethrin.

Imidaclopr­id belongs to the neonicotin­oid class of insecticid­es, which are the most commonly used insecticid­es on crops in the U. S. Despite neonicotin­oids being connected to massive dieoffs of non- target insects such as bees and butterflies, the EPA proposed re- approving imidaclopr­id and other class members last year.

Flumethrin, EPA documents show, is only an active ingredient in one product: Seresto.

Like with most pesticides, the data supporting the registrati­on of Seresto was conducted by the company that produced it, Bayer. The majority of the studies were looking at each pesticide individual­ly.

However, a 2012 Bayer study found they have a “synergisti­c effect,” meaning they are more toxic together on fleas.

Additional­ly, eight companion animal safety studies were conducted by Bayer looking at the effect of Seresto collars on domestic cats and dogs. The EPA used these studies to approve Seresto.

Another issue could be a reaction of inactive ingredient­s, which are unknown and have caused problems in spot- on treatments, said Donley of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Donley, who has a doctorate in cell and developmen­tal biology and is a former cancer researcher, said this “synergisti­c effect” likely extends to pets. He said he wasn’t sure what makes the two pesticides so likely to cause harm, but it is clear something is wrong with the product.

It’s not just pets that are being harmed, EPA documents show.

Between 2013 and 2018, 907 incidents were reported with humans, according to a September 2019 EPA assessment of human health risk.

The assessment determined that there were 19 severe incidents. Of those, eight people had dermal symptoms, such as a rash or hives, and seven had neurologic­al symptoms, which included numbness and headaches.

‘ It’s just been a nightmare’

To Bomwell, the worst part was the lack of warning. Pierre had never been sick or had a seizure. He was just 9, so she thought he had half a decade left. Her last dog had died at 18. Plus, she felt like she was responsibl­e. She was the one who put the collar on.

“It was so bizarre,” Bomwell said. “It’s just been a nightmare.”

Without the government stepping in, individual­s are left in the dark. That’s something Ron Packard, of Brockton, Massachuse­tts, is hoping to address.

In the days after the death of his two dogs in June 2019, Packard did what any person looking for answers does: He went to the internet.

Two of Packard’s four dogs had recently had seizures on the same day, before becoming lethargic and vomiting and finally, refusing to eat. He brought them to the veterinari­an, who couldn’t find a problem.

Within weeks, the two previously healthy cavachons, 10- year- old Danny and 5- year- old Dominic, were dead.

The only thing Packard could figure was both dogs had started wearing Seresto flea and tick collars a month before.

Packard created a Facebook page, asking people who had similar issues to share their stories.

Today, the page fills up with pictures and stories like Packard’s.

Packard encourages everyone to report their story to the EPA.

“I don’t want others to go through what we went through,” he said. “Every time I read the stories, it brings me back to my dogs. But if I can save a few pets, I can deal with it.”

 ?? TANYA BREEN/ USA TODAY NETWORK ?? Rhonda Bomwell of Somerset, N. J., lost her 9- year- old Papillon, Pierre, in June because of side effects from wearing a popular flea and tick collar for pets. Regulators have done nothing to inform the public of the risks.
TANYA BREEN/ USA TODAY NETWORK Rhonda Bomwell of Somerset, N. J., lost her 9- year- old Papillon, Pierre, in June because of side effects from wearing a popular flea and tick collar for pets. Regulators have done nothing to inform the public of the risks.
 ?? PROVIDED BY CHEWY ?? Since Seresto flea and tick collars were introduced in 2012, the EPA has received reports of at least 1,698 related pet deaths.
PROVIDED BY CHEWY Since Seresto flea and tick collars were introduced in 2012, the EPA has received reports of at least 1,698 related pet deaths.
 ?? PROVIDED BY RON PACKARD ?? Dominic with owner Ron Packard two weeks before the 5- year- old cavachon died. The dog had recently started wearing a collar.
PROVIDED BY RON PACKARD Dominic with owner Ron Packard two weeks before the 5- year- old cavachon died. The dog had recently started wearing a collar.

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