April 22 is Earth Day, which is a perfect time to evaluate your exposure to synthetic pesticides. Don't overlook the pesticides you may use around your own home. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 80 percent of an individual's pesticide exposure occurs indoors and at least one pesticide is used indoors in 75 percent of American households.
The term pesticide refers to any substance that is used to kill or control a pest. These substances can be insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides or disinfectants. The EPA's list of common household products that are considered pesticides includes rat/rodent poisons; personal-use insect repellents, cockroach sprays and baits; flea and tick sprays, powders and pet collars, kitchen, laundry, and bath disinfectants and sanitizers, products that kill mold and mildew, some lawn and garden products (i.e., weed killer) and some swimming pool chemicals.
Pesticides vary in terms of their harmful effects on human and environmental health. Some, including organophosphates and carbamates (typically found in insecticides), have been linked to headaches, dizziness, nausea, excessive salivation, vomiting and damage to the nervous system. Fungicides and herbicides can cause eye, nose and throat irritation. High-level or chronic exposure to certain toxic pesticides (including cyclodiene and its relatives) may also lead to damage of the liver, kidneys, endocrine and nervous systems as well as increase the risk of some cancers.
Generally, the more exposure one has to a pesticide, the greater chance for harm. Children's exposure to pesticides is a particular concern because harmful chemical exposure can hinder important developmental processes, and the same pesticide exposure acts as a larger dose for a child than for an adult.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices, used on many sustainable farms, is one way that individuals can eliminate or greatly reduce their in-home exposure to pesticides. Instead of using these toxic agents to immediately control household pests, first analyze the source of the infestation. Eliminate all possible indoor and outdoor food sources and habitats, keeping indoors dry, clean and well ventilated. If this does not solve the problem, use chemicals only in minimal, recommended amounts that are mixed or diluted outdoors and applied in well ventilated areas. Also be sure to dispose of unneeded pesticides safely.
For more information on pesticides, visit http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pesticid.html, http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/freepubs/pdfs/uo198.pdf, and http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/publications/books/housing/cha05.htm#fn51. To learn about why pesticide use is particularly dangerous for children, go to http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/factsheets/kidpesticide.htm.Every Monday, the Johns Hopkins Healthy Monday Project, part of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, offers tips for preventing disease and injury, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Check back each week for new tips or visit our archive.