Nearly four weeks after the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Hartz Mountain Corp. to relabel its Blockade flea-and-tick repellent, complaints about the insecticide received by the EPA and the Illinois Animal Poison Information Center are starting to taper off.

In the last two weeks, calls about Blockade have declined at the Illinois center -- which, despite its name, is a national service -- to about 20 or 30 a week. In the first half of September, the hotline was receiving that many calls a day.

Speculating on the reasons for the drop, resident toxicologist Anita Kore noted that in parts of the country, the flea season is starting to subside; that consumers have been warned about Blockade by the media; that pet owners are now explicitly instructed how to apply the insecticide; or simply that people are avoiding the product.

As of Sept. 23, the Illinois center had received 560 complaints about Blockade; 65 percent of these involved clinical signs that were consistent with a general pattern. The center says the repellent has been implicated in the deaths of 46 dogs and cats.

Hartz, meanwhile, is in the process of attaching neck tags to those cans already in stores. Those labels must say Blockade should not be used on dogs younger than 3 months, on cats younger than 1 year or pregnant, or on sick, old or debilitated animals. They also must say the animal's coat should not be saturated with the repellent, nor treated more than once every seven days.

Furthermore, the EPA is requiring Hartz to state on each can: "If salivation, tremors or vomiting occur after treatment, pet should immediately be bathed with a non-pesticidal shampoo, wrapped in a towel to prevent chilling and taken to a veterinarian, along with the product container."

According to the EPA, Hartz will have all cans relabeled by the end of October. Furthermore, "they have to provide us with additional toxicology data that the product, even with the new label, does not adversely affect animals," said agency spokesman Al Heier. "The data should be available in mid-March -- before the next tick season."

Hartz has issued a statement that says, "The use of any product to control fleas on pets is associated with a degree of hazard to the animal ... Insecticides in the pyrethrin category, which includes Hartz Blockade, have been reputed to be among the safest insecticides available."

The privately owned Harrison, N.J., company has previously said that the number of incidents are consistent with the safest insecticides. Since Blockade went on sale in March, 5 1/2 million cans have been sold. Hartz spent 10 years developing the product.

In an interview earlier this week, Hartz vice president Claud Kissin would not go much beyond reading the prepared statement. Asked if the company was planning to change the extent or style of the aggressive advertising campaign that has previously been used for Blockade, Kissin replied only, "No comment." (Officials at Cooper Square advertising agency did not return a reporter's phone calls. Cooper Square is owned by Hartz Mountain.)

What happens when a customer calls Hartz with a complaint about Blockade?

"That would depend on the circumstances," Kissin said. "If someone has an active, immediate problem, they would be given the information that's on the new label. If they're talking about a past problem, we ask them to write to us, and tell us everything they can about the circumstances."

And what would Hartz do then? "We do not comment on any specific case."

Does Hartz feel the incidents of poisoning are being overplayed in the media?

Kissin had no comment.

And finally, why won't Hartz comment?

Kissin had no comment.

EPA entomologist Phil Hutton analyzed the number of cases this way:

"Hartz feels that because of a lot of media exposure, they're getting blamed for deaths they're not responsible for. That's probably true. There's probably a certain percentage that are misdiagnosed by the consumer. But to balance this off, how many don't get reported at all? ... How many people had a cat that died, they threw it in the dumpster and they didn't call EPA or Illinois or anybody?"

As for Hartz's argument that a few complaints are being blown out of proportion, Hutton asks, "Is a small percentage {of poisonings} acceptable? Is any percentage acceptable? One in ten thousand is the figure that gets bandied around ... What we're looking for is, is there a margin of safety involved? If someone uses Blockade too frequently or applies too much, what kind of factors are involved that would lead to any sort of problem?"

To put the Blockade incidents into context, toxicologist Kore noted that the Illinois center has had 3,869 calls so far this year about insecticides. Some of these inquiries were informational, some clinical; they applied to a range of animals from dogs and cats to birds and sheep. Hartz Blockade was responsible for 850 of these calls -- 22 percent. "I think it's a high percentage," said Kore.

"We've never had anything like this before," said EPA entomologist Hutton. "On a new product, you can expect a hundred reports {of problems}. The number of complaints here is unusual, and that's why the EPA has taken an unusual action -- requiring interim label changes. It's not normal for someone to relabel what is on the shelves."

The label Hartz had orginally placed on the cans, Hutton said, "was somewhat less restrictive than similar products." It did not give any age or size warnings, or mention the possibility of over-application. If Hartz had had in the beginning a label similar to the one mandated by the EPA, would that have lessened the number of outbreaks?

"For one thing," said Hutton, "it wouldn't have sold 5 million cans. Would you buy a product that would say that your animal may have seizures, tremors or {start to} vomit? And those that decided to buy it would be insane to apply it to any cat under a year old" -- which has been the type of animal most afflicted.

Drugs or Cosmetics? Anti-aging treatments -- claimed by their manufacturers to actually rejuvenate skin -- are the hottest and most controversial segment of the cosmetics industry ("Facing Up to an Old Problem," Style Plus, March 27).

The Food and Drug Administration, which previously had said these preparations were in "an enforcement no man's land," took action in April by sending regulatory letters to 23 firms.

The letters said the products were new drugs being marketed without a new drug application, and were therefore in violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Representatives from 12 companies met with the FDA in July; last month, the firms submitted supporting documents that reasserted their products were cosmetics.

"It's a standstill," Heinz Eiermann, director of the FDA's Division of Colors and Cosmetics, said this week. "The ball's in our corner. We have to make the next move."

Ad End McDonald's got in trouble this spring with a highly touted ad campaign that aggressively promoted nutrition ("Golden Arches Under Fire," Style Plus, June 1). State attorneys general in California, New York and Texas threatened legal action if the fast food company didn't stop. Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox told the company: "McDonald's food is, as a whole, not nutritious. The intent and result of the current campaign is to deceive customers into believing the opposite."

At the time, McDonald's said, "We are not agreeing to terminate the campaign." But the end result, according to Al Sheldon, supervising deputy attorney general for California: "We have not seen those ads anymore."

He doesn't claim this as a triumph over McDonald's. "I don't think we look at these things as victories and losses. It's a question of trying to get the most truthful information out."