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
Pesticides can cause a wide range of health problems, including 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. Other studies have shown that some pesticides may
cause asthma, in
addition to triggering asthma symptoms.
Immediate health impacts can include dizziness, headaches, sweating,
fatigue, memory impairment, visual disorders and vomiting, as well as
skin, eye and respiratory tract irritation.
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 are adults. Some studies
have demonstrated a link between childhood cancers and pesticides.
Approximately 4.4 billion pesticide applications are made each year to
American homes, gardens, and yards. According to surveys by the U.S. 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. The EPA surveys showed that 80 percent
of most people’s exposure to pesticides occurs indoors.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 outdoors.
Some exposures (i.e. those from pesticide use in schools, on playing
fields, in parks, and by neighbors) are more difficult to reduce and control
than others. However, being informed, asking questions, researching options,
investigating legislation, and requesting notifications from schools and
landlords are a few overall steps that will increase the ability to understand
the risks pesticides pose to a child and take actions to reduce them.
The best way to protect the home environment from posing health hazards
as the result of pesticides is to prevent their use in the first place.
If pesticides have already been applied in the home, it is important to
wash all surfaces and items that may have come into contact with the pesticide
and to provide adequate ventilation throughout the home. As pesticides
can be difficult to wash away, it is generally recommended to wash the
surfaces first with a Borax solution and then rinse them with a separate
baking soda solution.
Neither indoor nor outdoor use of pesticides offer a long-term, complete
solution to pest problems; they kill pests but need to be re-applied periodically.
In order to permanently eliminate pests, it is necessary to identify the
factors that are allowing the pests to thrive and alter them.
Inside the home, this typically involves eliminating food and water sources
and preventing pests from entering the home.
- Eliminate food sources such as packaged
food in the cupboard, pet food, crumbs on counters and floors, and garbage
by preventing access to them. Keeping food and garbage in tightly sealed
containers and frequently cleaning counters, floors, carpets, and furniture
are a few ways to limit nourishment to pests.
- Eliminate water sources such as leaking
pipes, toilets, and faucets; standing water in sinks, tubs, and houseplant
bases; and excessive bathroom humidity.
- Eliminate home access points through methods
such as caulking or otherwise plugging up all cracks and crevices throughout
the home around plumbing, electrical, and gas lines, as well as in places
like cupboards and walls; checking items like paper bags, groceries,
and pet food bags before they are brought into the house; sealing cracks
in window sills and under doors and insuring they have well-maintained
screens; and installing screens on all floor drains.
In instances where an infestation has occurred or is not diminishing
with preventive measures, and it seems as though traditional chemical
pesticides are necessary, alternatives such as baits and boric acid are
safer, preferable forms of treatment, as they limit the level of human
exposure to pesticides. If more potent pesticides are applied, a targeted
application to cracks and crevices is preferred. Pesticide sprays and
fogs should not be used to control the problem.
Always be certain that the appropriate pesticide is being applied for
the location and the level of the problem being addressed. Instructions,
guidelines, and warnings on labels should be read, understood, and followed
at all times. Proper disposal and storage are also important steps in
preventing unwanted pesticide exposures.
Identifying and altering the factors that may allow pests to thrive is
also the preferred method of pest prevention outside the home. This typically
involves clearing away potential habitats that may be in immediate contact
with the home (i.e. woodpile and garbage cans), removing breeding sites
(i.e. standing water, pet feces, and trash), and selecting species of
vegetation appropriate to the local environment (i.e. pay close attention
to grass, shrub, tree, and garden selections).
Overall, this set of combined approaches to pest prevention and reduction
is called integrated pest management (IPM).
- IPM is effective, economical, and environmentally
- IPM uses a combination of common-sense practices,
information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the
environment, and available pest control methods.
- IPM presents the least possible hazard to
people, property, and the environment.
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.
Alliance for Healthy Homes
Asthma Regional Council - Integrated
Beyond Pesticides - Asthma,
Children, and Pesticides brochure
Cox, C., Journal of Pesticide Reform, “EPA
Takes Action on Diazinon: Too Little, Too Late” (Winter
Cox, C., Journal of Pesticide Reform, “Ten
Reasons Not to Use Pesticides” (Winter 2001)
Environmental Health Watch - Pests
and Asthma Resources (includes IPM information)
Gumm, Brian, Home Energy, "Integrated Pest Management in
the Home," Vol. 21 Iss. 6 pp. 36-39 (Nov-Dec 2004)
Natural Resources Defense Council
Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides - NCAP, Journal
of Pesticide Reform, “Does
Government Registration Mean Pesticides are Safe?”
Pesticide Action Network - PAN
Safer Pest Control
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - Pesticides
Zahm, S.H., and Ward, M.H., Environmental Health Perspectives,
and Childhood Cancer,” Vol. 106 Suppl. 3, pp. 893-908
- Asthma No Attacks Hotline: 1-866-NO-ATTACKS
Information Service: 1-800-4-CANCER or
The National Cancer Institute provides the Cancer Information Service
to serve the public in understanding scientific cancer research findings.
Pesticide Information Center: 1-800-858-7378
This center provides information about pesticides to the general public
and the medical, veterinary, and professional communities.
- Safe Drinking Water Hotline: 1-800-426-4791
This hotline provides information on Safe Drinking Water Act regulations,
lead and radon in drinking water, filter information and a list of state
drinking water offices.
- Su Familia (Your Family): 1-866-SU FAMILIA
Alliance for Hispanic Health sponsors this helpline to
offer Hispanic consumers free, reliable and confidential health information
in Spanish and English and help navigate callers through the health
- TSCA Assistance Information Service: 202-554-1404
Provides information on Toxic Substances Control Act regulations and
on EPA's asbestos program