Pest-Proof Your Home, Safely

More pest safety

Weeds and Garden Pests

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Some herbicides -- the products you use to prevent or kill dandelions and other weeds -- can contain chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, which can affect healthy growth and development in babies and children, says Dr. Kegley. (Even some of their "inert" ingredients fall into this category.) Others include chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer in animal studies. Children can be exposed by sitting on or playing in the grass, or petting a dog who plays on the lawn. "It doesn't do your garden any favors either, since you're about as likely to kill something you actually want to have growing," Dr. Kegley notes.

Meanwhile, insecticides (what you'd spray to stop plant-eating bugs) are made from pyrethroids, as well as carbamates and neonicotinoids, all of which kill good insects like bees and butterflies along with the bad. They also help breed insect resistance (the ones that don't die build up a tolerance), which ultimately compounds your pest problem. And they're highly toxic to humans and pets. "Avoid using any of these products around edible plants -- you don't want your vegetable garden to be laced with chemicals that could cause health problems for your family," says Dr. Kegley.

The Safer Strategy

Each spring, pull weeds by hand while they're still young and easy to remove. Then top all garden beds with 2 inches of mulch, to suppress weed growth and help your plants retain water and other key nutrients. If you're building new beds, line the bottom with newspaper, cardboard, or weed-block fabric. Deter small animals like moles and rabbits by lining raised beds and containers with fine-mesh chicken wire. When planting, add flowers such as marigolds, alyssum, and zinnias in with your vegetables; these repel rabbits and attract beneficial predator insects, which will eat the pest bugs before they get to your tomatoes and peppers. If you do need to treat an infestation, try neem oil, insecticidal soap, horticultural oils, sulfur dust, or bacterial pesticides; all are safer than conventional products and can be found at most garden centers. With a bit of effort, it isn't that hard to find safe ways to ditch unwanted creatures.

We Didn't Forget Fleas!

Because they're so darn persistent (and itch-inducing), fleas may be Pest Public Enemy Number One. But flea collars and chemical baths may contain chemicals such as tetrachlorvinphos and propoxur, which Dr. Jennifer Sass describes as "among the most dangerous pesticides still legally on the market" because exposure can damage a child's growing neurological system. Try these ideas instead:

  • Vacuum every space where pets hang out. Aim for at least once a week. Throw vacuum bags away (or put tape over the end of the vacuum hose) immediately after vacuuming to prevent fleas from escaping.
  • Use drop cloths. Place towels or washcloths over the spots where your dog or cat likes to nap. The towels will collect flea eggs, which you can kill by putting the fabric through a hot cycle in the washing machine once a week.
  • Flea-proof your yard. Grab a bag of diatomaceous earth (a talc-like powder made of clay minerals, iron oxide, and silica) from a garden center or a home-improvement store and put down a layer wherever pets spend a lot of time. It's abrasive and lethal to any insect with an exoskeleton -- it works by literally cutting them up -- but has low toxicity to humans, notes Dr. Kegley.
  • Give baths. If you spot your dog scratching (or see an adult flea hopping around anywhere) be sure to bathe him weekly. Cats won't love this idea, but you can give them about the same protection by grooming weekly with a flea comb. Fleas caught in the comb should be drowned in soapy water.
  • Use chemicals sparingly. If you do need to resort to a chemical treatment, opt for pills that leave no residue that children can be exposed to. Look for products containing lufenuron, nitenpyram, spinosad, or pyriproxyfen -- all safer options, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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