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Say 'Aaah' | Our Health

If You Can't Avoid Pesticide Use, Minimize It

September 11, 2000|JONATHAN FIELDING and VALERIE ULENE | Dr. Jonathan Fielding is the director of public health and the health officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. Dr. Valerie Ulene is a board-certified specialist in preventive medicine practicing in Los Angeles. They can be reached at ourhealth@dhs.co.la.ca.us

When it comes to ridding your home of unwanted pests, it's a case of "pick your poison." While some people fear common pests such as ants, cockroaches and rodents, others worry more about the chemical pesticides used to kill or repel these creatures.

Those worries notwithstanding, it is estimated that more than eight of every 10 U.S. households use pesticides of some type, whether it's to rid the kitchen of ants, the garden of bothersome weeds or their pets of fleas and ticks.

Despite such common household use, surprisingly little is known about the hazards associated with this type of exposure. Most medical research has focused on people, such as agricultural workers, who are regularly exposed to very large amounts of pesticides. In these individuals, pesticides have a variety of health effects, ranging from nervous system damage to increased cancer risk.

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Until demonstrably safer pesticides are developed, your best protection is to minimize your exposure to them by using them only when absolutely necessary.

While that approach may sound obvious, a survey by the Environmental Protection Agency found that nearly 40% of U.S. households use pesticides even when there is no significant problem with pests.

The best approach is to prevent pest problems from developing. Install screens on all doors and windows, and seal any openings in floors or walls to keep pests (bees, flies and rodents) from entering your home. Eliminate access to food and water, without which pests cannot survive. Storing food in tightly sealed glass or plastic containers, for example, will go a long way in the battle against ants.

In the garden, select plants known to resist disease and insects, and mulch regularly. If pests do become a problem in your home, use alternative means of controlling them whenever possible. Mouse traps can be set, a "swatter" can be used to kill flies, bees and wasps, and weeds in the garden can be handpicked. In some cases, insects can even be used for pest control purposes. Releasing ladybugs in the garden, for example, can help keep aphids under control.

If you opt for a pesticide, select the least-dangerous product possible. Read the label carefully for clues to the product's toxicity. The words "'danger-poison" obviously signify that the product contains chemicals that can be highly poisonous (these products are typically only available to certified pesticide applicators). The word "danger" is used to identify products that are poisonous or corrosive. "Warning" means that the product is considered moderately hazardous. And "caution" indicates that the product is considered least hazardous.

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Some pesticide labels will recommend wearing protective clothing, such as nonabsorbent gloves, rubber footwear or goggles, while applying the product. Never apply more pesticide than recommended by the manufacturer. When using pesticides indoors, proper ventilation is important. Keep windows open unless the product only works in a sealed area. Everyone except the person applying the pesticide should leave the rooms being treated. Afterward, everyone, including the person who applied the pesticide, should leave the treated area for at least the length of time recommended on the label.

If you use pesticides outdoors, avoid tracking them inside. While they are being applied, windows and doors should be closed to prevent the chemicals from blowing indoors. Take off shoes before going inside, and remove and wash contaminated clothing immediately.

Be aware that pesticide residues can also be found on certain foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. Although there are legal limits on the amount of pesticides that can remain on food products for purchase, extra precautions are still in order. Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water before eating or cooking them. (Rinsing dislodges contaminants that soaking can leave behind.)

Because washing may not remove all the pesticide residues, consider peeling fruits and vegetables whenever possible. The health benefits associated with these foods far outweigh the potential risks from the pesticides that are used on them. Instead of cutting back on them, select a variety of fruits and vegetables to reduce the likelihood of exposure to a large amount of any one pesticide, or try organically grown produce.

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Our Health appears the second and fourth Mondays of each month.

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