A Basic Primer on Pesticides

A word certainly familiar to any person, and yet what do you really know about pesticides? You are constantly bombarded with news articles about them - generally in a negative way. You are occasionally asked to vote on issues about them - generally to further restrict them. And, you are exposed to them every day! "What? How can that be? We don't even use pesticides around our home, or any other "toxic" stuff."

Yes, you do. In fact, the most highly regulated and widely used pesticide is……chlorine. It is in all public drinking water supplies, and thank goodness it is there. This pesticide protects us, by killing bacteria and other possible disease-causing pathogens that live in water. Many countries do not yet have the technology to purify all their drinking water, and these kinds of illnesses are often common, sometimes taking many lives.

So, you probably do use pesticides in your home, and are lucky to have the ability. However, we might ask ourselves "is chlorine toxic?" Yes, chlorine is very, very toxic. "Then why doesn't it make us sick?" The answer can be the same answer for most toxic substances - THE DOSE MAKES THE POISON. If you use too much, it can sicken you. If you use a proper dose, it can be of benefit to you.

What are some more things around the house that are toxic?

  • Aspirin - many people die each year from overdoses or allergic reactions.
  • Bleach - household bleach is quite toxic.
  • Vitamins - actually, Vitamin A is far more toxic (ounce for ounce) than any commonly used insecticides, and yet is quite necessary, in small doses, for proper health.

  • Gasoline - both liquid and vapors can easily kill people, and yet we are exposed to low doses of either each time we fill the tank on our car. Why doesn't that exposure harm us? Because of the low dose.
  • Paint, rubbing alcohol, DRINKING alcohol, salt, pepper, glue, chocolate, caffeine, medications, diet pills, toothpaste, sodas, disinfectants, cleansers, soap - ALL have toxic properties to them, but with good common sense we use them as they are supposed to be used, and maintain our exposure well below any hazardous level.

In fact, even plants and their parts - apples, almonds, oranges, celery, carrots - have toxic properties in them. These are the "Natural" pesticides that the plant itself produces, as a means for warding off the insects that would eat them. Extracted, concentrated, and ingested in large enough doses, and these NATURAL materials easily would kill people. If your diet consisted 100% of carrots and Coca Cola you probably would suffer some ill health.

So, there are various kinds of pesticides around your home. They may be the chlorine or bleach, or they may be those we traditionally think of as pesticides - perhaps you have on hand some rodent poison to kill the gophers that have been terrorizing your garden, some snail bait, or a bit of spray to knock the aphids off the roses. These materials are certainly "toxic", and great care should be exercised in their use and storage. That care comes by reading the Product Label, which will explain exactly how to use the material in an effective manner, and one that minimizes any risk to you or your family.

How can a poison be used "safely" in my home, my yard, or my business?

The answer lies in the size of the pest compared with people. A flea is millions of times smaller than a human, and therefore requires only a tiny amount of a toxic material to cause its death. If that flea were as large as your German Shepherd (Men In Black, we need you!) it would require a proportionately larger dose of poison to kill it, and human exposure would be a concern as well.

When a pest control product is "sprayed" in your home - for example, a treatment of the carpets for flea control - the amount of actual poison may be as low as 0.01% of the material. That means that 99.99% of the spray is water. Following the application the water evaporates, and the active ingredient of the pesticide binds tightly to the sprayed surface, virtually eliminating exposure to you or your children who may contact that surface once it is dry.

Weed control is different, since plants have metabolisms far different from animals. As a consequence, most Herbicides (weed killers) have a toxicity rated as very low. For example, Roundup herbicide has an acute toxicity that actually is about one half the toxicity of table salt. Now, please don't think that this means it is okay to drink Roundup, but with standard precautions and the use of Roundup as outlined on the Product Label that comes with it, there should be no hazard created for you. Roundup is designed to affect a plant, and at the doses adequate to do so normal human exposure is well below a risk level.

A word of caution here, or perhaps a "disclaimer". Government regulators have made it very clear that the pest control industry is to avoid the use of words such as "safe", "safely", "healthy", etc. when referring to pesticides. Pesticides are not, ultimately, "SAFE". However, used correctly they can provide benefits for us in eliminating problems, and the risk from the toxic substance is kept extremely low.

Can pesticides cause cancer or birth defects?

Renowned researchers in this field of medicine, such as Dr. Bruce Ames from the University of California, or Dr. Edith Efram, another well known expert on cancer and its causes, believe that pesticides are a negligible concern in this area. In fact, a commonly used test for potential "carcinogens" is called The Ames Test, after Dr. Ames, who first discovered it. Both of these objective experts maintain that all substances, in a high enough dose administered to laboratory animals, are capable of causing toxic damage which might, then, lead to tumors or mutations. Within this category these highly respected experts include salt, peanut butter, beer, penicillin, celery, and any other natural substance that has "chemicals" in it.

All manufacturers of pest control chemicals are required to test their materials in a variety of known testing methods, to determine whether or not they have a potential as a carcinogen or teratogen. Some of these studies are long-term studies, on several generations of test animals, at doses far higher than you or I could be exposed to with even sloppy use. The test animals generally are exposed for their entire lives, again far beyond exposure from use of the products. The Material Safety Data Sheet for each pesticide give information on the results of these tests, but it would be the rare manufacturer who would release a product to the market knowing it could cause long-term harm to his customers.

Can pesticides make you sick, or possibly harm our pets?

Certainly they can…… if they are used improperly. However, safeguards are in place to ensure that Professional Users apply pesticides correctly, greatly minimizing any risk to the environment or to you, their customers. Today's certified or licensed pesticide applicators are better trained and more closely regulated than ever before. Most states require that they receive Continuing Education in order to maintain their certification.

Again, the improper use of any substance, pesticides included, will increase the risk of overexposure and illness. At the proper use strength they can be of benefit in removing pests that can bite or sting us, or feed on our food, our homes, or our gardens. In a number of cases there are pesticides in frequent use that also are used as medicines or medical treatments for people. Examples may be found in eyewashes, shampoos for fleas or ticks, antibiotics, and heart or blood problems.

So, are pesticides "safe"?

No. They are toxic and can kill, and therefore we cannot say they are safe, any more than we could claim aspirin is "safe", no matter how many we take for a headache. Pesticides are toxic materials and can cause problems if they are not used correctly. However, they can be used in a safe manner if we follow the written instructions and use good common sense.

Are pesticides necessary?

Not always. Without a doubt we use pesticides too often in this country. Most people have a very low tolerance for "bugs" in the house, and choose the toxic approach first for eliminating them. Often, a better control approach is to use good IPM - Integrated Pest Management. We should look at the reason the pest is present, and change that environment physically to make it less livable for the pest. If we move the firewood piles away from the house we are less likely to be bothered by silverfish, carpenter ants, or spiders. If we keep foods properly stored we are less likely to be invaded by ants or cockroaches. There are many actions necessary that would greatly reduce the pesticides needed by themselves.

However, toxic substances are used today to eliminate or repel rodents and insects that can cause us great stress or harm. Mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, cockroaches, ants, spiders, flies, rats, pigeons, and many others are capable of spreading diseases or toxic stings to people. Therefore, in order to continue the excellent healthy trends we have enjoyed in the United States, just as doctors still prescribe antibiotics for diseases, we still must rely on the cautious use of some toxic materials to control pests.

The Good News Is…we are learning. Newer products, new techniques, greater education and knowledge of the pests we deal with are all combining to reduce the amount of pesticides used. Our exposure is reduced due to more careful application, and IPM is improving the overall control of the pest. Most pesticides used today are much less toxic than those commonly used in the past, and they are effective at far lower doses, reducing our exposure even more.