Critical assessment of the ubiquitous occurrence and fate of the insect repellent N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide in water

Sylvain Merel, Shane A. Snyder

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


The insect repellent diethyltoluamide (DEET) is among the most frequently detected organic chemical contaminants in water across a wide range of geographies from around the world. These observations are raising critical questions and increasing concerns regarding potential environmental relevance, particularly when the emergence of severe neurological conditions attributed to the Zika virus has increased the use of insect repellents. After dermal application, DEET is washed from the skin when bathing and enters the municipal sewer system before discharge into the environment. Mainly measured by gas chromatography or liquid chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry (GC‐MS or LC-MS), more than 200 peer-reviewed publications have already reported concentrations of DEET ranging ng/L to mg/L in several water matrices from North America, Europe, Asia, Oceania, and more recently Africa and South America. While conventional wastewater treatment technology has limited capacity of removal, advanced technologies are capable of better attenuation and could lower the environmental discharge of organic contaminants, including DEET. For instance, adsorption on activated carbon, desalinating membrane processes (nanofiltration and reverse osmosis), ozonation, and advanced oxidation processes can achieve 50% to essentially 100% DEET attenuation. Despite the abundant literature on the topic, the ubiquity of DEET in the environment still raises questions due to the apparent lack of obvious spatio-temporal trends in concentrations measured in surface water, which does not fit the expected usage pattern of insect repellents. Moreover, two recent studies showed discrepancies between the concentrations obtained by GC‐MS and LC-MS analyses. While the occurrence of DEET in the environment is well established, the concentrations reported should be interpreted cautiously, considering the disparities in methodologies applied and occurrence patterns observed. Therefore, this manuscript provides a critical overview of the origin of DEET in the environment, the relevant analytical methods, the occurrence reported in peer-reviewed literature, and the attenuation efficacy of water treatment processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)98-117
Number of pages20
JournalEnvironment international
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016


  • Analytical interference
  • DEET
  • Diethyltoluamide
  • Insect repellent
  • Mass spectrometry
  • Water contamination
  • Water treatment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science(all)


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