Green Guidance

Green Guidance

Less Ugly Pest Control

by Mindy Pennybacker

When bad weather keeps you indoors, you probably would rather not share your space with pests or conventional remedies. The former can spread disease while pesticides can cause allergic reactions, irritate skin, eyes, and lungs, or poison children and pets. What's the alternative? Hold up a mirror to a roach, and his reflection will cause him to flee the premises, one nineteenth-century author advises. Unfortunately, more than a century later, we still have roaches in places we'd rather not. Many people, in exasperation, resort to highly poisonous "killer" sprays.

Happily, there exists a simple, less dramatic and more effective system of pest control, called Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, which employs least-toxic strategies. "IPM has three parts: sanitation, exclusion, and baits," says Bill Quarles of the Biointegrated Resource Center (BIRC) in Berkeley, California. Here are some tips from BIRC and the book Tiny Game Hunting to help you manage (i.e., destroy) the uninvited:

  • They come looking for food and water. Never leave food out. Wash dishes promptly, keep surfaces clean, put garĀ­bage in pails with snug-fitting lids and take it out often. When you do not give pests anything to eat, "it forces them to eat the baits," Quarles says. Wipe up moisture and fix any leaks.
  • Exclude pests by sealing cracks and crevices, especially around pipes and radiators and between counters, baseboards, and walls, with steel wool (mice can't chew through) or a low- or no-VOC caulk, which won't release toxic volatile organic compounds into your air. "Put out sticky traps so that you know where roaches are-how they get in, where they are living," Quarles advises. To kill roaches, treat crevices with boric acid (see below) before caulking.
  • To make the least-toxic bait that will kill insects, mix one-half teaspoon boric acid with one and a half tablespoons sugar in one cup of water and put small amounts in film canisters or other small containers near entry points, underneath the sink, behind the stove and refrigerator and wherever else you've seen ants or roaches. A warning: Although the EPA classifies boric acid as being of low toxicity and a noncarcinogen for humans, it is poisonous if ingested and should, like all pesticides, be placed out of the reach of children and pets.

If the above seems like too much trouble, consider the ugly effects of the harder stuff. "Cancer mortality is down, but cancer incidence is up, and pesticides are definitely part of that picture," says Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment (CCHE) at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. In a California study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2002, exposure to household pesticides was associated with an elevated risk of childhood leukemia. Pyrethroids have been found to trigger asthma attacks and cause skin irritations in sensitive individuals.

Organophosphates, a class of pesticides that attack the nervous system, are particularly dangerous to children. Babies of women who had been exposed to the greatest amount of two organophosphates-chlorpyrifos (Dursban) and diazinon-had lower birthweights, EHP reported in May 2004, while those whose mothers had chlorpyrifos in their blood and urine had a significantly smaller head circumference. While these two chemicals were phased out of residential and school use by EPA in 2001-03, "There are still 46 more first-cousin organophosphates out there, and we only regulate one at a time," Landrigan says.

To kill ants, for instance, "We've found that the cheapest, easiest, and most effective method is putting a teaspoon of liquid dish soap into a spray bottle full of water and zapping the ants with it. Later, when you wipe them up, the counter or floors will be cleaner, too," write the authors of Tiny Game Hunting. Recently, weary of the steady stream of ants across my bedroom into the hall and bath, this writer filled a spray bottle with peppermint castile soap and sprayed away, removing the casualties with a rag. After three times, the line vanished and hasn't reappeared.

For more information:

Tiny Game Hunting: Environmentally Healthy Ways to Trap and Kill the Pests in Your House and Garden, by Hilary Dole Klein and Adrian M. Wenner (University of California Press, 2001, $14.95).

Bio-Integral Resource Center (, 510-524-2567) sells pest-specific control publications.

See for product reports on nontoxic pest control, "Play Not Spray" and related articles in Green Guide #92 and "Top 10 to Buy Organic" Smart Shoppers Card, to avoid foods with heaviest pesticide residues.


Mindy Pennybacker is editor of Green Guide, published by The Green Guide Institute, which provides the research for this department.