|Pesticides are substances designed to
kill, repel, or mitigate pests. They include a number of chemical and biological
agents commonly used in and around the home to control a broad range of
pests: insecticides (for insects, including cockroaches, ants, and termites),
rodenticides (for mice and rats), fungicides (for mold and fungi), herbicides
(for plants), and antimicrobials (for bacteria and viruses).
Approximately 4.4 billion pesticide applications are made each year to
American homes, gardens, and yards. According to surveys by the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA), more than three-quarters of U.S. households use
pesticides, with 66 percent treating major living areas in the home one
or more times per year. Cockroaches and ants are the most common targets.
More than one-third of households used insecticides in the absence of
a major insect problem.
Children may be exposed to pesticides in food, water, and their environments.
However, pesticide use in the home, lawn, and garden is responsible for
most children’s exposures. Children may come into contact with pesticides
that have been applied in the home, or they may gain access to pesticides
that have not been stored safely. They also can be exposed to pesticides
applied outdoors or to pets. Pesticides used outdoors can contaminate
the home when pesticide-laden dust is tracked inside on shoes and pets.
The number and concentrations of pesticides found in household dust exceed
those found in food, soil, or air. To make matters worse, pesticide contamination
in the home can persist for years, particularly in carpets, due to the
lack of sun, rain, and other factors that help to break down pesticides
Pesticides can cause a wide range of health problems, ranging from acute
and persistent injury to the nervous system, injury to reproductive systems,
birth defects, and cancer. Of the 28 pesticides estimated by EPA to be
most widely used in agriculture, in and around U.S. homes, and by commercial
pesticide applicators, more than 40 percent are classified by EPA as likely,
probable, or possible carcinogens, according to a review by the Northwest
Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP). Use of these pesticides
totals 350 million pounds per year. An EPA database summarizing studies
of 19 of these commonly used pesticides indicates that 18 of the 19 have
caused reproductive problems in laboratory tests. Immediate health impacts
can include dizziness; vomiting; headaches; sweating; skin, eye, and respiratory
tract irritation; and fatigue. The health effects from exposure to pesticides
vary depending upon the level and duration of exposure. As with most environmental
toxins, children are at greater
risk from exposure than adults.
EPA regulates pesticides used for residential purposes under the Federal
Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Under FIFRA, EPA
can register the use of pesticides or ban or limit their use if they are
found to cause unreasonable risks to human health and the environment.
The Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) establishes a higher standard for
pesticides used on food: tolerance levels (the maximum amount of pesticide
residue permissible on food) must be safe, taking into account exposures
from dietary and other sources, as well as the special vulnerability of
children to pesticide exposures. While many pesticides are registered
for agricultural use, some are registered only for other uses, such as
controlling pests in the home.
Subject to some limited exemptions, a pesticide cannot be used legally
in the US unless it has been registered with EPA. Since FIFRA was amended
in 1988, EPA has been reviewing the health and environmental effects of
pesticides registered prior to 1984 to ensure that they meet current,
more stringent standards. The 1996 FQPA also requires EPA to review food
tolerance levels to ensure their safety and to review pesticide registrations
every 15 years.
These review processes have led to bans and use restrictions on some
pesticides widely used in the home. For example, chlorpyrifos (marketed
by Dow as Dursban) was the most commonly used insecticide in homes, gardens,
schools, hospitals, and day care centers for control of cockroaches, ants,
fleas, spiders, and ticks. In addition to acute poisonings, chlorpyrifos
was found to cause chronic headaches, blurred vision, fatigue, memory
loss, depression, irritability, and low birth weights among infants. EPA
banned all residential uses in 2004.
In addition to risks presented by older pesticides, some
recently registered pesticides may pose health or environmental
hazards. According to NCAP, a survey of 19 pesticides registered
since 1997 found that nearly all of them posed hazards, including
increased risk of cancer, genetic damage, birth defects, and
other serious health problems. Some “inert” ingredients
cleared for use by EPA also may be harmful.
States also regulate the use of pesticides. States may register
pesticides, restrict their use, and establish certification
requirements for pesticide applicators. They also may require
notification prior to pesticide use and/or posting of areas
where pesticides are applied.
Pesticides do not offer a long-term, complete solution to pest problems;
they kill pests, but typically need to be re-applied periodically. In
order to more effectively
eliminate pests, it is necessary to identify the factors
that are allowing the pests to thrive and alter them. This typically involves
eliminating food and water sources and preventing pests from entering
the home. This process is known as integrated pest management, or IPM.
Asthma, Children, and Pesticides brochure [PDF] - www.beyondpesticides.org/children/asthma/asthma%20brochure%20high%20res.pdf
Beyond Pesticides - www.beyondpesticides.org
Cox, C., Journal of Pesticide Reform, “EPA Takes Action
on Diazinon: Too Little, Too Late” (Winter 2000) - www.pesticide.org/diazinonNEWS.pdf
Cox, C., Journal of Pesticide Reform, “Ten Reasons Not
to Use Pesticides” (Winter 2001) - www.pesticide.org/TenReasons.pdf
Environmental Health Watch, Pests and Asthma Resources (includes IPM
information) - www.ehw.org/Asthma/ASTH_home1.htm#Pests
Gumm, Brian, Home Energy, "Integrated Pest Management in
the Home," Vol. 21 Iss. 6 pp. 36-39 (Nov-Dec 2004)
Natural Resources Defense Council - www.nrdc.org
Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides - www.pesticide.org
Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, Journal of Pesticide
Reform, “Does Government Registration Mean Pesticides are Safe?”
(Summer 1999) - www.pesticide.org/BasicRegistration.pdf
Our Stolen Future - www.ourstolenfuture.org
Pesticide Action Network - www.pesticideinfo.org
Safer Pest Control Project - http://spcpweb.org/
Silent Spring Institute - www.silentspring.org
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Pesticides Program - www.epa.gov/pesticides/index.htm
Zahm, S.H., and Ward, M.H., Environmental Health Perspectives,
“Pesticides and Childhood Cancer,” Vol. 106 Suppl. 3, pp.
893-908 (June 1998) - http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/members/1998/Suppl-3/893-908zahm/zahm-full.html