According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 20,000 pesticide products marketed in the U.S. today, which translates to about 1.1 million pounds of active ingredient spread around commercial and residential areas every year. (1) In terms of commercial use, this level of exposure to pesticides affects a significant number of employees as well as the people who handle and apply them. In fact, among potential occupations at risk, the Environmental Protection Agency considers pet groomers, agricultural workers, groundskeepers and fumigators at the highest risk of excessive exposure. Of the 2 million people currently employed in the agricultural industry alone, up to 20,000 require medical treatment for pesticide poisoning each year. (1)
On The Home Front
It isn’t necessary to pick pesticide-treated produce or roll across a recently treated lawn to increase your risk of getting sick from pesticide exposure. If you do laundry at home, clean your bathroom with a disinfectant or apply “the spot” to Fido to rid him of fleas, you are equally at risk of pesticide exposure. Believe it or not, household products like these are responsible for making indoor air more polluted than outdoor air – up to 70 times more. Furthermore, seemingly innocuous products like bathroom cleaner and laundry detergent often contain pesticides, such as flousilcate. (2) According to Purdue University, indoor exposure studies show that pesticide residues collect on various surfaces in the home and are transferred via the air or human contact to other surfaces or people to an even greater degree than in the work place, simply because we behave differently in a home than in an office building. Infants, small children and the elderly are the most vulnerable. (3)
Impact on Human Health
Dr. Alice Ottoboni, author of “The Dose Makes the Poison,” defines “toxicity” as “the ability of a chemical to damage an organ system, such as the liver or kidneys, or to disrupt a biochemical process, such as the blood-forming mechanism, or to disturb an enzyme system at some site in the body.” In short, this means that pesticides damage the cells, tissue and organs of living organisms that we consider pests. Unfortunately, they are not biologically selective. Over time, or with exposure to high levels of pesticides, these agents may cause cancer, birth defects and a number of diseases in humans. (4) According to Russell Jaffe M.D., Ph.D., more than 15 million people in the U.S. exhibit some kind of adverse health effect from pesticide exposure. Of these, Dr. Jaffe estimates that 11 million experience muscle and joint disorders; about 500,000 suffer from asthma, migraines or chronic inflammatory skin disease, like eczema; and roughly 5 million succumb to disease caused by pesticide exposure. In children, exposure to home, garden and pet pesticides is associated with an increased risk of brain cancer and four-to-seven times the risk of leukemia. (2) A 2010 Harvard-based study published in “Pediatrics” reported that children with high levels of malathion residue in their urine, a pesticide commonly used on fruits and vegetables, have more than twice the risk of being diagnosed with ADHD. Kids with high levels of urinary metabolites produced from exposure to another common fruit and vegetable pesticide, dimethyl thiophosphate, are 93 percent more like to have this disorder. (5)
Is it possible to get rid of what’s bugging you without poisoning yourself and your loved ones? According to the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, it is.
Take ants, for instance. These common household visitors show up in search of the same comforts of home that you enjoy – warmth, water and food. If you have moisture issues, rotting wood or doors and windows in need of caulking, these issues are like standing invitations to enter your home. Grease and food spills are very attractive, as are food remnants left in jars and waiting in recycling bins for pickup, so keep kitchen surfaces clean and take the time to rinse recycling.
Similarly, eliminating potential sources for food and shelter in your home can deter mice. Trim back or remove foliage around the foundation of your home that mice like to hide in, namely ivy and blackberry bushes. (6) If you really want to be proactive about preventing mice from invading your space, adopt a cat (or two) in need of a home from your local animal shelter. If you’re fond of owls, think about providing a few nesting boxes in your yard. If these options aren’t possible, then consider going high-tech with sonic devices that keep mice away without harming wildlife or pets.
If you feel that you simply must call out “the big guns” because your home or yard is severely infested with one pest or another, there are still safer alternatives to chemical pesticides. For instance, many home and garden centers stock organic pest control products these days. Also, professional pest management companies that use natural, non-toxic materials are springing up everywhere like…well, weeds. Just be sure to interview carefully before hiring one to be certain their methods are truly non-toxic.
Need some guidance about a specific pest problem? Beyond Pesticides (formerly National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides) provides a series of fact sheets to educate the public about the least toxic control measures to handle a variety of pests, from bed bugs to wasps: Beyond Pesticides
1. CDC: Pesticide Illness & Injury Surveillance (Last accessed 7/13/11) http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/pesticides/
2. “The Naturally Clean Home”; Storey Books, 1999
3. Purdue University Pesticide Program: Pesticides and Human Health Risk Assessment (PDF, 6MB) http://www.ppp.purdue.edu/Pubs/PPP-48.pdf
4. “The Dose Makes the Poison: A Plain-Language Guide to Toxicology, 2nd Edition”; Wiley, 1997
5. “Pediatrics”; Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Urinary Metabolites of Organophosphate Pesticides; MF Bouchard, et al.; May 17, 2010 http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/gca?allch=&SEARCHID=
6. NCAP: Pest Solutions http://www.pesticide.org/solutions/home-and-garden-toolbox