Are You Still Using Pesticides?
by Bernice Lipton

Have you ever set off a bug bomb in your home and then felt sick for a couple of days? Or spread snail bait among your seedlings and prayed that the dog—or the kids—wouldn't sample it? If so, you've probably wondered, "Aren't there safer ways to fight pests?"

Modern pesticides usually bring quick death to those unpleasant little creatures determined to move in with us, but what do you do when the roaches—or fleas or snails—show up again and again, as they're very apt to do? Keep laying on the poisons?

A slow, searching walk along the pesticide aisles of a hardware store or garden shop can be a disturbing experience. From the acrid odors, whether produced by the insecticides or their dispersal agents, you know instinctively that these products can do you no good. Your instincts are right. A chemist once said, "If you can smell it, it will probably do some harm."

Scanning the package labels can make you even more uneasy. "Do not breathe spray miss. In case of eye or skin contact, flush with plenty of clear water. Contains a cholinesterase inhibitor" (a substance that impairs nerve function, but the label doesn't tell you that).

"Bait may be attractive to dogs. Toxic to birds and other wildlife. Keep out of lakes, streams, and ponds." And always, "Keep out of children's reach." If these materials interact with air, you could be breathing toxic vapors as long as residues are left, which could be indefinitely.

What's worse, chemicals aimed at a particular pest may be found unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency, yet remain on market shelves until stocks are used up. Confused consumers rely on retail sales help as ignorant as themselves.

Actually everyone is vulnerable to these toxins from the home gardener accidentally spraying a bug killer into the wind, to people with allergies, respiratory ailments, or skin problems to the elderly, the very young and pets.

Okay, so you're young, you have neither children nor pets, and your skin and lungs are in great shape, free of allergies. You're also absolutely sure that you always handle hazardous substances without ever endangering yourself or anyone else. This fact, however, may give you pause: Some of our worst pests are now resistant to nearly all the chemical killers we have. Hundreds more are immune to at least some pesticides.

Among the species that readily bounce back from the chemicals are those most dangerous to us—flies, fleas, mosquitoes, ticks and lice. Other resistant insects include major pests of agriculture, forests and stored foods. We may seem to win a few battles here and there with insect pests, but we're beginning to realize that we've lost the war. Today, although our soils and crops are regularly drenched with poisons, insects still devour about 20 percent of our farm products, the same proportion of loss we suffered in 1900, fifty years before the onslaught of pesticides began.

With commercial agriculture's present heavy reliance on chemicals to keep its products marketable, we certainly don't want to add household pesticides to the brew of poisons we already take into our bodies. How deadly are these substances? The world found out on December 2, 1984, when a toxic gas, methyl isocyanate, leaked from Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. As many as 2,500 people were killed outright, and another 60,000 were seriously injured, many being disabled for life.

So, chemicals may not solve your problem at all, even in the short run. What's more worrisome, homeowners who pour unused pesticides down the drain or drench garden soils with them are major polluters of our water. They're also contaminating our seafood. Shellfish taken recently from the coastal waters off southern California have been found to contain dangerous levels of pesticides.

If you fall into the trap of using more and more pesticides, you run the risk of making yourself sick or developing an allergy to them. Meanwhile, the pests you're trying to kill, hardly fazed by the same substances endangering you, keep coming back. If we add to these hazards the pollutants from automobiles and industry already infiltrating our bodies, doesn't it make good sense to keep our personal space as free of contaminants as possible?

In the late 1980s, a new category of man-caused diseases, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, was identified. Symptoms include serious digestive and respiratory problems, joint and muscle disorders, dizziness, blurred vision, confused thinking and depression. Victims often try, at great effort, to create a chemical-free home, but with limited success. Dana Miller, a former student at Harvard Law School, became violently ill after exposure to a common household insecticide. She suffered damage to her heart as well as to her nervous, reproductive, and immune systems. She is now allergic to many chemicals, and lives in a tent on unsprayed land in Texas. Her leave from Harvard has run out, and she has little hope of resuming any career.

Are there other ways to discourage and drive off the insects and rodents that find our homes and gardens attractive—ways that work permanently? Yes, there are. Our ancestors knew how to get rid of all sorts of unwanted wildlife, inside and out, without poisons. With a little effort, two of their most powerful weapons are yours for the taking—cleanliness and sunlight. Other methods they used were often not much more complicated than these. Best of all, pests cannot become immune to these safe, effective techniques.

Insects and rodents have been our unwelcome companions ever since humans first learned to grow and store food. In making life more secure and comfortable for ourselves, we also made it more secure and comfortable for many species of little wildlife.

Few of us want to move back out under the trees and run naked to get rid of the pests, and most of us would find a diet of roots and berries pretty dull. Down through the years, however, observant individuals noticed that insects and rodents avoid certain substances or conditions that humans find harmless or pleasant. They also observed that lacking food or water, the little creatures moved out.

Our ancestors, wherever they lived, stored food against the inevitable times of shortage. Some stored their stockpiles in holes lined with straw to keep insect raiders out. The Chinese still build small shelters of clay and soft mortar, as their forebears did, to safeguard their grains. Early peoples also mixed their grains with aromatics like bay or eucalyptus leaves or inedibles like sand, ashes, or sulfur to repel pests. Farmers in Galicia, Spain still build small granite and wood huts, called horreos; unchanged in design since about 500 B.C., these granaries are almost completely rodent-proof. In India, grains were once spread on a rug in the sun to drive out light-sensitive insects.

Many of the control methods described in the book “Bug Busters” by Bernice Lipton (Avery; $9.95) are more modem versions of these techniques. They may have kept your grandmother's house pest-free and given it the pleasant fragrance you remember. In today's enthusiasm for instant solutions, we tend to ignore safer, somewhat slower ways. Yet these less drastic methods make sense. After all, you wouldn't go after a gang of neighborhood burglars with a bomb when good lighting, burglar alarms and an alert police force can do the job effectively year after year.

Not all of the techniques described here are equally effective in all situations, but then neither are the chemicals. Climate, seasonal weather, natural surges in pest populations, soil, and your own thoroughness and persistence may all affect how well these measures work for you.

In her dramatic book “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson, warning of the dangers of our heavy reliance on chemical pesticides, tells the story of a woman deathly afraid of spiders. Finding a few in her cellar one August, she sprayed the whole area thoroughly—under the stairs, in the storage cupboards, around the rafters—with a solution of DDT and petroleum distillates. Wanting to make sure she'd killed every last one, she repeated the spraying twice more at intervals of a few weeks. After each go around, she felt nauseated and extremely nervous.

Following the third spraying, more alarming symptoms appeared: phlebitis, fever, painful joints. Shortly after, she developed leukemia and died. Although the culprit may have been the petroleum distillates and not the DDT, the tragic irony of her suffering and death is that the spiders were keeping her cellar free of pests. They may even have been relatively immune to the substance she was spraying. Furthermore, she could have cleaned them out more effectively—certainly more safely—with her vacuum cleaner.

This woman was a victim of entomophobia, the unreasoning fear of insects. While hers was an extreme case, revulsion caused by insects and other tiny animals is widespread. Many of us pull back in fear when an odd-looking beetle crosses our path. We know little if anything about it, yet we are repelled. Maybe it eats things we value, such as our garden plants or our food. More likely it actually helps us by serving as food for animals useful to us, like birds and lizards, or by preying on even smaller beings—aphids and scales—that destroy our rose and vegetables. In addition, it may aerate the soil, letting us grow healthier plants.

Although insects can get along very well without us, we cannot ignore them. They were around hundreds of millions of years before the first humans showed up and, from all indications, will probably still be here long after we've vanished. But while we're here together, we depend on them for our food and a livable environment.

Not everyone who's afraid of insects carries it to the point of slow suicide, but educated individuals can work pretty hard at it. A retired schoolteacher friend recently announced that she'd just installed an electronic bug zapper in her garden, already thoroughly doused with chemicals. When I told her she was killing beneficial insects that keep the real “pests” in check, she grimaced in disgust. "I hate bugs," she said, "all of them." One wonders how many children she has infected with her unreasonable fear of all insects.

Excerpted with permission from: “Bug Busters: Poison Free Pest Controls for Your House and Garden” by Bernice Lipton (Avery Publishing; $9.95; ISBN 0-89529-451-6).