How the aerosol industry is helping us prepare to fight the Zika virus

aerosol can spray

With Zika virus reaching Florida and infecting dozens locally, including 90 pregnant women, Americans are starting to worry. How will they protect themselves if Zika, and the mosquitoes that carry it, reach their town?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends bug sprays, protective clothing and staying indoors to keep mosquitoes at bay. Because you probably can’t stay inside all day, and because protective clothing can only cover so much, you’ll probably want to have bug spray handy for if and when the Zika-carrying mosquitoes arrive.

And because aerosols can be applied more evenly to the body — as well as to clothes in most cases — they’re often cited by the CDC and others as the best delivery system for insect repellant, alongside yard foggers and other products that create a mosquito-blocking perimeter.

Manufacturers at all points in the bug-spray supply chain are expanding production to gear up for the possibility of explosive demand should the Zika virus spread.

If the worst-case scenario does happen, Ryun Bibro, executive vice president of aerosol filler IKI Manufacturing, expects to see “people walking in saying, ‘We need 10 million cans a week every Friday.’ It’s crazy.”

IKI, which originally stood for Insect Killers Incorporated, got its start protecting GIs fighting in the Pacific during World War II from malaria. More recently, Bibro managed the company through the West Nile virus scare a few years ago. “[It] was a very similar pattern. It became a big news story at the beginning of the year,” says Bibro. “We in the industry and those [bug-spray] marketers ended up building up a lot of material to combat the West Nile virus. They ended up sitting on most of it until the next season because it never quite developed into what everybody was fearing.”

The CDC looks to recent outbreaks involving the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the same bug transmitting Zika, to understand how the virus might spread if it reaches our shores. “Recent outbreaks in the continental United States of chikungunya and dengue, which are spread by the same type of mosquito, have been relatively small and limited to a small area,” said Candice Burns Hoffmann, press officer for the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, via email.

Can manufacturers are planning for increased production. “It’s definitely impacted all those who support marketers with insect repellent and insecticide brands,” says George Buckland, vice president of sales and marketing for Crown’s North American aerosol business, via email. “Our plants and our employees are stepping up in order to manufacture as many cans as quickly as they can because they understand how important this is not just for our customer but for the overall well-being of our communities.”

The can industry is built to adapt to shifting demand, so preparing for a rush on aerosol can components isn’t an insurmountable challenge. IKI is also accustomed to ramping up production. “When we look at how it’s affecting our supply chain, this is something we go through every year when it’s insect season,” Bibro says. The problem is that the whole supply chain isn’t prepared to increase output. A can of bug spray relies on not just the can components and an aerosol filler, but also the ingredients inside.

Bibro points out that DEET, one of the Environmental Protection Agency-registered active ingredients recommended to combat Zika, only has two manufacturers in America. Because so few companies utilize DEET, the market is generally stable. “When there’s an anomaly like this, it’s really a huge disruptor for the entire market.”

And manufacturers of natural bug repellents simply can’t increase production. Ingredients that come from plants, such as pyrethrum, have only so much material to work with. “Whatever that crop is, that’s the pyrethrum for the world for the year,” Bibro says. “Just because Zika decides to come and Johnson Wax decides to hit the order level 200 percent, that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden there’s more DEET or more pyrethrum. It’s a real challenge.”

Manufacturers also have to prepare for the possibility that Zika will go the way of West Nile, leaving warehouses filled with cans. IKI had to wait until the sellers worked through their back stock the next year, which ate into sales.

Still, Bibro doesn’t think any production expansions put in place now will end up being a waste. “We’re putting in more infrastructure just to support this business, more tanks, more filling resources, just generally trying to fortify ourselves to be prepared for the next season and the next season,” he says. The American expectation of avoiding nature’s inconveniences will continue to drive demand for bug spray, Zika or no.

Manufacturers are turning to innovation to repel insects. “The use of the standard aerosol spray container continues to be the most effective way to protect ourselves against Zika, however, as a company we are always thinking of new innovations that can help our customers and their consumers,” Buckland said via email.

Bibro says there are some potentially breakthrough innovations involving electronics in aerosol cans that are still a few years out, with more improvements being tested regularly.

“It’s a wetter, hotter planet,” Bibro says. “Issues of insect-borne pathogens and just generally our interaction with the environment … these are problems that are going to continue to manifest themselves and continue to get worse. We’re going to continue to have to look for good, safe, effective ways to address all those things.”