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Pest-Proof Your Home, Safely

Baby playing with pots and pans

Cynthia Perez

You make a conscious effort to keep your child away from harmful substances -- medications have a childproof top, the laundry detergent and drain cleaner are kept well out of reach. But if a mouse scurries across your kitchen floor, you might not think twice about turning to chemicals for help.

And yet pesticides, insecticides, rodenticides, and other products contain a wide range of chemicals that may pose serious health risks to you and your family. "Most people think that pesticides sprayed under their counters or in one spot in the backyard stay where you put them," explains David O. Carpenter, M.D., director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany in Rensselaer, New York. Instead, these chemicals become airborne and cling to dust particles, where we can easily inhale them. And if you're regularly relying on such products to keep your home and garden pest-free, your family may be absorbing these chemicals far too often. "Even at low levels, chronic exposure can add up to adverse health effects in the long term," says Dr. Carpenter. "And the stakes are especially high for little kids." In fact, last November, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement calling for the government to improve warning labels on pesticides and set goals to reduce our children's overall exposure to them.

This makes sense. "These chemicals are designed to kill by interfering with an insect's nervous system," explains Phillip Landrigan, M.D., a Parents advisor and director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "But insects and people aren't as different as you'd think. Our brain and theirs have similar enzymes, so we're also vulnerable." And since pound for pound, children breathe more air than adults do (infants twice as much) and encounter more dust as they crawl around on the floor, they are especially vulnerable to the health hazards of these chemicals. "We now suspect that certain pesticides can kill cells in the brain of very young children in doses that would be more or less harmless for an adult," says Dr. Landrigan.

Environmental-health experts worry that pesticide exposure may increase kids' risk for a wide range of health problems, from allergies to childhood cancer, while also impacting healthy cognitive development. Studies of more than 800 children in New York and California published in Environmental Health Perspectives revealed that babies who had been exposed while in utero to a class of pesticides called organophosphates had lower IQ scores, a shortened attention span, and difficulties with short-term memory by the age of 4. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started banning organophosphates in most household products in 2001, but they're still used by exterminators and allowed in farming, which means they can wind up in our food.

The jury is still out on whether the chemicals that have replaced organophosphates in the majority of household products are necessarily safer. The new chemicals fall into two groups known as pyrethrins and pyrethroids. "Inhaling or ingesting these can be toxic and result in symptoms like asthmatic breathing, headaches, nausea, tremors, convulsions, swelling, and itching," explains Jennifer Sass, Ph.D., a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental-action group. Pyrethroids, in particular, are designed to persist in the environment rather than break down, which raises questions about what happens when we're exposed to them long-term.

Of course, even with these potential health risks, breaking up with pesticides is hard to do. But a series of commonsense practices known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) can be effectively applied to just about any pest problem -- and leaves the toxic stuff as a last resort.

 
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.

Rodents

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.

 
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.