The Poisons in Your Pantry

By Michael Dover Gazette Contributing Writer

The spring equinox is upon us, daylight saving time has already begun, and our thoughts are turning toward the growing light and warmth. We’re opening the windows, clearing out clutter and preparing the ground—and ourselves—for this year’s lawn and garden work. This would also be a good time to take a hard look at the hazards that may be lurking in your basement, closet, shed or under the sink: chemical pesticides.

Unlike other household chemicals that may be toxic as an unintended side effect, pesticides are, by definition, designed to cause harm to some living thing. As such, these products all pose some degree of risk. Many contain compounds that can affect the health of people and their pets in ways that weren’t understood when they were first marketed. The array of chemicals is dizzying: according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 20,000 house and garden pesticide products on the market contain some 300 active ingredients (the compounds that cause the desired effect of killing or disrupting pests) and as many as 1,700 “inert” ingredients (not truly inert, these are solvents and other compounds mixed with the active ingredients).

These pesticides come in the form of pest strips, bait boxes (traps), bug bombs, flea collars, shampoos, sprays, granules, liquids and dusts. We buy them to fight insects, spiders, mites and ticks; lawn and garden weeds; fungi and bacteria; and rodents in and outside the house. We use them on our rugs and floors, garden vegetables and fruit trees, lawns and ornamental plants, and even ourselves and our pets.

EPA data show more than 70,000 calls are made to poison control centers every year concerning household pesticides—and more than half of them involve children. Conventional wisdom, very reasonably, advises people to keep pesticides out of the reach of children: in locked cabinets, preferably high enough to be out of reach as well.

But this only protects against the poisoning cases that show up in those reports. It doesn’t address the risks associated not with accidents but with using the pesticides. Both acute (high-dose, short-term) and chronic (low-dose, longer-term) exposure can cause harm. For instance, recent studies suggest a link between household pesticide use and childhood leukemia cases. This concern leads to a fundamental question we should all consider before we reach for a pesticide: Do we need this product at all?

Too often, chemicals are used as a short-cut alternative to good sanitary practices or effective lawn and garden pest controls. That cockroach spray will knock the bugs down for a while, but sealing cracks and crevices, fixing leaking or sweating pipes and removing food sources like pet food bowls or unwashed dishes will keep them away for good. A powerful chemical spray may temporarily kill off the insects chewing your garden vegetables, but building healthy soil, mulching around your plants and planting resistant varieties will result in minimal pest damage and healthier, more nutritious crops, without any pesticide on the food you eat. What’s more, you won’t poison birds and other species that can help you control pests.

A half-century ago, chemical pesticides were hailed as the miracle that would usher in unlimited prosperity and freedom from the plagues of humanity. It hasn’t worked out that way, and we now know better. Even after more than 40 years of reviewing and banning the most troublesome pesticides—including some common household products—we’re still finding chemicals that may cause cancer, birth defects and other ills.

Fortunately, there are alternatives if we only take the time to learn about them. There’s a wealth of reliable information available from federal and state agencies. A couple of good places to begin are UMass Extension ( and EPA (

So before you reach for that spray can, go to your library or on-line and find out what else you can do. You’ll be doing yourself and the planet a favor.

More about pesticides

Pesticide pointers

Pest management principles

Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and member of the Hitchcock Center board.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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