Most of us use pesticides in our homes and gardens. Here’s what you should know about these toxic home pollutants.
What are they? Pesticides are chemicals used to control pests ranging from bacteria and fungi to insects, plants and rodents. Sold as sprays, liquids, sticks, powders, balls and foggers, they work by deterring, incapacitating, killing or otherwise discouraging pests.
Where can you find them? Surveys show that the majority of us maintain a home arsenal against a variety of house and garden pests—from weed killer to flea collars and moth balls—and use an average of three to four products a year.1 Indeed, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that 80 percent of most people's exposure to pesticides occurs indoors, and measurable levels of up to a dozen pesticides have been found in the air inside homes.2
Besides the many pest control products you probably have under your sink, pesticide residues in food (especially fruit and vegetables), bedding, carpets, furniture and household dust are other possible sources of exposure to these chemicals in the home.
What's wrong with them? Pesticides aren't just harmful to pests; they're bad news for humans, too. Research on farmers exposed to pesticides shows the chemicals can have extensive short- and long-term effects involving the blood cells, liver and nervous system.3 And there's a long list of studies linking occupational exposures to an array of different cancers.4
But even just household use of pesticides can be hazardous to health, it seems—especially for kids. It's been linked to leukemia,5 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma,6 Wilms' tumor (of the kidney)7 and brain cancers in children.8
In adults, household pesticide use has been found to increase the risk of Parkinson's disease9 and brain tumors.10 And consuming pesticide residues via fruit and vegetables has been associated with poor sperm quality11 and lower chances of pregnancy and live birth following infertility treatment.12
What can you do about them? You can reduce your pesticide exposure at home by eating organic produce as much as possible. If you can't afford to go fully organic, focus on the 'dirty dozen' fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide levels listed by consumer health watchdog Environmental Working Group (see www.ewg.org). Wash produce thoroughly—adding a little baking soda can help get rid of pesticides.13
Also look for organic options when it comes to bedding and household furnishings, or choose companies that don't use pesticide treatments on their products.
The Pesticide Action Network has put together a useful guide, Gardening Without Pesticides, which can be found at www.pan-uk.org. And here are some more alternatives to pesticides you can use in your home and garden.
Diatomaceous earth This powdery substance is all natural and nontoxic, made from the fossilized remains of single-celled algae known as diatoms. Thanks to its abrasive and dehydrating properties, it is effective at controlling a variety of crawling insects—even more so than the organophosphate malathion for some pests.14 Simply dust around plants and sprinkle on foliage (and reapply after rain).
Physical methods Use physical methods rather than chemicals whenever possible to control pests, for example blocking entrances, using traps and baits, and digging up weeds.
Essential oils A variety of plant essential oils can be effective for pest control, including:
The pungent aroma of garlic can keep pests away, and garlic essential oil has been found have insecticidal effects.15 For an all-purpose insect spray, mix a few drops of garlic essential oil (or one whole garlic bulb, blended) with one onion, 1 Tbsp of cayenne pepper and 4 cups of water; allow sediment to settle, then pour through a coffee filter to strain. Add 1 Tbsp of liquid soap and apply with a spray bottle.
A safe and eco-friendly insecticide and fungicide,16 neem oil can be mixed with water and liquid soap and sprayed on plants to keep bugs at bay. It can also be used to repel fleas and other biting insects on pets. Various neem-based pet products are available to buy online, or you could try making your own flea repellent by mixing 4 Tbsp neem bark powder with 4 Tbsp internal green clay. Take a small handful of the powdered mixture and rub through the back and flanks, avoiding the face and genitals.
Another essential oil with insecticidal properties,17 lavender is a popular anti-moth remedy. Try hanging dried lavender bags in your closet with added lavender essential oil.
Pest prevention The most effective means of pest control is prevention: remove the pests' sources of food, water and entry into your home, and they won't be able to survive. Here are some simple steps to try. • Seal cracks around windows and doors with caulk or weather-stripping • Inspect groceries and used furniture for insects before bringing them home • Trim plants and shrubs to keep them at least one foot away from your house • Remove piles of scrap wood, mulch or leaves from around the outside of the house • Clean up all spills and messes immediately • Keep trash and recycling containers tightly sealed, and empty them often • Don't leave out dirty dishes • Store all food (including pet food) in pest-proof containers with tight-fitting lids • Clean out grease and crumbs from your kitchen regularly •Repair leaky pipes and plumbing •Get rid of old piles of paper and cardboard