07/19/2012 08:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mosquito Squad Denies 'Dread Skeeter' Character Targets Children

Environmental health experts, advocates and legislators convened at Yale University on Tuesday to discuss the use of man-made pesticides and the health risks they pose, especially to children.

One of the main topics of conversation: pest control marketing campaigns that appear to target children.

Last month, The Huffington Post highlighted strategies used by Mosquito Squad, a national company whose business has skyrocketed this year to include more than 100 franchises. A super-hero like mascot named Dread Skeeter adorns the pages of the company's website and kid's coloring book. Pictures and videos show him interacting with kids at parades, playgrounds and baseball games.

Many people fear that such tactics can threaten children's health, whether by manipulating parents’ purchasing of pesticides or by making both parents and children feel safe around a potentially poisonous product.

"It's appalling," said Dr. Jerry Silbert, director of the nonprofit Watershed Partnership, who attended the meeting. "Children are one of most vulnerable populations to the adverse effects of pesticides."

Mosquito Squad recently removed website links to the coloring book, but continues to distribute printed copies to kids. Larry Spada, brand strategist for Outdoor Living Brands, the umbrella company for Mosquito Squad, denied that his company markets to children. He defended the use of the coloring book, as well as the mascot, Dread Skeeter.

"In the post-9/11 era, after sales had declined dramatically, advertisers were advised to create an emotional connection with their consumers. Our consumers are moms and dads,” said Spada. “That was where our head was, not children.”

Thus spawned the protective Dread Skeeter, complete with sunglasses and a backpack-mounted pesticide spray gun slung over bulging biceps.

With rising concerns over Lyme disease, West Nile virus and other insect-borne diseases, Mosquito Squad has enlisted costumed Dread Skeeters to educate children about the risks of mosquito and tick bites, explained Spada.

"We had an aggressive campaign last year teaching about what a tick looks like," Spada said, adding that kids were told if they found a tick on their body to let their parents remove it with tweezers. This year, said Spada, Dread Skeeter is helping advocate the "5 T's" for mosquito control: tip, toss, turn, remove tarps and treat. The last "T" references the company's pesticide spray.

As for the coloring book, Spada suggested that franchise owners simply wanted a give-away item for kids at home shows. The company eventually posted the book on the website, he noted, so that franchise owners could have "easier access to print it out" for such events.

Spada acknowledged that the company's campaign, from the website to coloring book to Dread Skeeter's visits with kids, doesn't touch on the potential hazards of pesticide exposure.

Sarah Evans, a postdoctoral research fellow in Environmental Pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is one of many experts and advocates who take exception to this lack of "balance."

"Children should be taught to take the use of dangerous chemicals seriously, and to understand that such substances should be employed only in extreme situations," said Evans, who attended the Yale meeting. 

Mosquito Squad's pest-killing blend of poison includes a pair of pesticides that are synthetic forms of chemicals created naturally by chrysanthemums. The company spotlights this point in its coloring book. Environmental advocates said the reference is deceiving. "Many think that just because something is naturally occurring that it is somehow better," said Asael Sala of the nonprofit Pesticide Watch. "They are still toxic."

"Most pesticides are effective because they are toxic to the nervous system of insects," Evans said. "They are also toxic to the human nervous system and especially dangerous for small children."

A Dread Skeeter coloring book for children

has recently been removed from the

company's website. Above, a page from

the book, which reads: "Dread Skeeter

protects kids and pets everywhere."

Click image to enlarge.

Evans added that a child's nervous system is particularly susceptible to the effects of chemicals because it is "still developing and maturing." Children also tend to live closer to the ground, put their hands in their mouths and take in more air relative to their body size than adults, Evans said. 

Dale Kunkel, professor of communication at the University of Arizona, pointed to one of the core guidelines listed in the industry's Self Regulatory Program for Children's Advertising published by the Children's Advertising Review Unit: "Products and content inappropriate for children should not be advertised directly to them."

"That's highly relevant here," said Kunkel. "This campaign reflects bad judgement. It is not sensitive to the special vulnerabilities of children.

“Worst-case scenario -- it creates interest and a child might try to obtain the product from under the sink," Kunkel said. "If they use it on their own, it would be highly dangerous.”

Other pest control companies offer their own activity books and cartoon characters. A national pest control industry group has a website devoted to kids that includes computer games and lesson plans about the "threats and risks pests pose to your family and home."

Evans compared the marketing tactics to the lead industry of the 1920s and 1930s. "To boost sales in the face of increasing evidence of the negative health effects of lead, paint companies included children in their advertisements, and even distributed coloring books," she said. "The general public felt reassured that lead paint was safe and sales skyrocketed, as did child cases of lead poisoning."