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Mosquitoes and Ticks
Conventional insect repellents designed to spray on your skin contain a chemical called N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, commonly known as DEET. While the EPA says it doesn't pose a health concern "as long as consumers follow label directions and take proper precautions," there have been reports of central nervous system problems including slurred speech, as well as eye and skin irritation. Seizures were noted in rare instances, too, but it seemed to be among those who had an unusually high level of DEET exposure. The level of exposure needed to cause a problem will vary based on a person?s sensitivity, says Susan Kegley, Ph.D., principal and CEO of the Pesticide Research Institute in Berkeley, California. "We all have enzymes in our body designed to detoxify poisonous substances, but everyone is different -- your genes determine how efficient your body is at removing them."
The Safer Strategy
Resort to DEET when you're worried about bugs that carry disease and watch kids carefully for symptoms if this is their first application. "If you live in or are traveling to a place with high rates of Lyme disease, West Nile virus, or malaria, it makes sense to use DEET," says Dr. Kegley. The AAP Council on Environmental Health urges caution when applying it to children; it recommends sticking to products with DEET levels below 30 percent and avoiding applying more than once a day. (For this reason, skip products that combine DEET and sunscreen.) Wash it off after it's no longer needed.
When possible, take DEET-free bug-deterrent measures, like making sure you don't have any standing water (aka mosquito breeding grounds) in your yard, rain gutters, buckets, or toys, and changing the water in fountains and birdbaths at least weekly. If mosquitoes drive you nuts during dinner on the patio, consider bringing a fan outdoors -- mosquitoes can't fly against a steady breeze. You can also choose citronella-based bug sprays and candles over DEET-containing sprays, or try lanterns that contain allethrin. This is a chemical from the pyrethroid family that the EPA says "is not likely to be a carcinogen," but Dr. Kegley warns it can cause allergic reactions in sensitive people. With any bug spray, you can give yourself and your kids a layer of protection by spraying clothes (especially hats and socks) instead of putting the product directly on to skin.
Ants, Roaches, and Other Indoor Pests
Studies show that repeated exposure to cockroaches can increase a child's risk for asthma. But if you're fighting roaches with pesticide sprays, you're simply replacing one environmental-health problem with another. Most ant and roach sprays are now made with pyrethroid insecticides, which can exacerbate asthma. A Columbia University study of pregnant women published in Pediatrics found a significant association between a mother's low-level exposure to these products during pregnancy and her child's cognitive delays at 36 months.
The Safer Strategy
Avoid attracting pests by storing food in sealed glass or plastic containers, sweeping up crumbs and other debris from your kitchen counters and floor, and putting any food scraps into a garbage can with a tight-fitting lid. Make sure that you don't have any standing water in and around your home: Fix leaky pipes, don't overwater your houseplants, and empty any water that may collect in the tray under your refrigerator. You can reduce pest entrance routes by caulking up cracks and crevices around cabinets and baseboards.
If you do spot critters, opt for bait houses over sprays to keep pesticides safely contained (though still place them in spots your kids and pets are unlikely to reach, like under your stove or fridge). "Bait is also much more effective than sprays because it works by passing the pesticide to the insect, who then carries it back to its nest," explains Dr. Kegley. If bait doesn't do the trick, gel products keep the chemicals better contained than a spray: Try squirting them into cracks in walls where pests may live.
If your problem is serious enough to warrant an exterminator, be sure to choose a company that truly complies with IPM. "Many companies say they do, but the truth is that they'll often reach for the chemicals before they try non-chemical treatments," notes Dr. Sass. You can search for responsible IPM practitioners in your area by plugging in your zip code at beyondpesticides.org/safetysource.
Rats and mice can carry disease and cause property damage; you'll know you're dealing with them if you see rodent droppings or nesting materials like shredded paper, especially near a food source. "But all rodenticides are terribly toxic," says Dr. Sass. Leaving out rat poison means you can't control where or precisely when the rodent dies, which means it could poison a neighborhood cat in the process. "The rodent will likely crawl off to die in your walls, where the smell can linger for months," warns Dr. Kegley.
The Safer Strategy
Again, prevention is your best defense. Take out the trash regularly, keep food sealed up, don't leave pet food or water out overnight, and fill up any crevices and holes with steel wool or wire mesh (rodents can eat through caulk). If you compost, keep the pile as far away from your home as possible. To deal with any rodents that do find their way in, Dr. Kegley recommends methods that kill quickly, such as snap or electronic traps (which deliver a high-voltage shock to the animal). Skip catch-and-release traps (where you catch the mouse alive and have to take it elsewhere) or glue traps (where mice are stuck until they die); these methods can cause rodents to urinate, which increases the risk for spreading disease.