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).
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% 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.
Use and Exposure
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% 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% 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.
Controlling Pests Safely: Integrated Pest Management
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 sensitive.
- 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.
Asthma Regional Council – Integrated Pest Management
Asthma Regional Council and Jane Malone, NCHH – IPM Policy Options for Residential Real Estate
Beyond Pesticides – Asthma, Children, and Pesticides brochure
Cox, C., Journal of Pesticide Reform, “EPA Takes Action on Diazinon: Too Little, Too Late” (Winter 2000)
Cox, C., Journal of Pesticide Reform, “Ten Reasons Not to Use Pesticides” (Winter 2001)
Gumm, B., Home Energy, “Integrated Pest Management” (November 2004)
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
- Control Household Pests Without Scary Poisons
- More Economic and Effective Pest Control: Integrated Pest Management
Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) – Journal of Pesticide Reform, “Does Government Registration Mean Pesticides are Safe?” (Summer 1999)
Pesticide Action Network – Pesticide Info
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – Pesticides
- Find out how to safely control pests like cockroaches and rodents that threaten your health with Preventing Pests at Home (English) or Evite las Plagas en Casa (Español).
- Learn about illegal pesticide products that should never be purchased or used inside the home.
- Discover answers to questions about pesticide safety and preventing pesticide poisoning with Poison-Proof Your Home: One Room at a Time (English) or Haga de Su Hogar un Lugar a Prueba de Vemos: Una Habatación a la Vez (Español).
- Explore tips on integrated pest management for families with this Play It Safe or the Preventing Pests at Home (English) or Evite las Plagas en Casa (Español) tip sheet.
Zahm, S.H., and Ward, M.H., Environmental Health Perspectives, “Pesticides and Childhood Cancer,” Vol. 106 Suppl. 3, pp. 893-908 (June 1998).
Asthma No Attacks Hotline: 1-866-NO-ATTACKS or 1-866-662-8822.
National Cancer Institute – Cancer Information Service: 1-800-4-CANCER or 1-800-442-6237
The National Cancer Institute provides the Cancer Information Service to serve the public in understanding scientific cancer research findings.
National 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) Helpline
The National Alliance for Hispanic Health sponsors this toll-free helpline (1-866-SU FAMILIA or 1-866-783-2645) to offer Hispanic consumers free, reliable, and confidential health information in Spanish and English and help navigate callers through the healthcare system. | En español: La National Alliance for Hispanic Health (Alianza Nacional para la Salud de los Hispanos) patrocina esta línea de ayuda gratuita (1-866-SU FAMILIA o 1-866-783-2645) para ofrecer a los consumidores hispanos información de salud gratuita, confiable y confidencial en español e inglés y ayudar a las personas que llaman sistema de cuidado de la salud.
TSCA Assistance Information Service: 202-554-1404
Provides information on Toxic Substances Control Act regulations and on EPA’s asbestos program.