Eliminate or reduce pesticide use

Biological control

Scott Bauer, USDA-ARS photo library

Pesticides are designed to kill, repel, or otherwise control perceived pest organisms - they are intentionally toxic substances. It is critical to realize, furthermore, that the vast majority of pesticides are toxic to organisms beyond the targeted pests. Whenever we use insecticides (for insect control), herbicides (for weed control), fungicides (for fungus control), rodenticides (for rodent control), or other pesticides, we must recognize that we are potentially exposing birds, beneficial organisms, pets, and people to risk. It is estimated that seven million birds die each year because of exposure to lawn pesticides. In a recent study of pesticide exposure among children living in a major U.S. metropolitan area, traces of garden chemicals were found in 99% of the 110 children tested. Remember, because children and pets have smaller body sizes, a tendency to play and roll on the ground, and frequently put in their mouths things that they find, they have a greater risk of exposure to applied pesticides do than adult humans.

Pesticide use is rampant in this country - homeowners apply an estimated 78 million pounds of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides per year to their homes, lawns, and gardens. And, this does not include applications made by pest control and lawn care professionals. Herbicide use is growing at a particularly rapid rate with homeowners using over 50% more than they did 20 years ago. According to the most recent data reported by the EPA (1999), 74% of a total 103.9 million U.S. households use some type of pesticide - 58 million households using insecticides, 40 million using herbicides.

As a consequence of such widespread use, pesticides have become pervasive in our environment. A U.S. Geological Survey analysis of 20 major river basins and aquifer systems reveals that commonly used lawn and garden pesticides are routinely found in surface and ground water throughout the country. Many can also persist in soil and in our gardens, and can be carried on our feet into our homes.

Beginning in your backyard you can do your part to reduce the amount of toxins that can potentially end up in streams, soil, food chains, and on children's hands. Before even contemplating pest control - make sure you have a pest problem. Learn your enemies. Equally important, learn your natural allies in pest control and welcome these beneficial organisms such as dragonflies, parasitic wasps, and lacewings into your yard.

In the healthy backyard, less-toxic alternatives are used to deal with common pests and weeds should a problem occur. In many cases, the only "active ingredient" you'll need is some elbow grease; hand-pulling weeds, for instance, can eliminate the use of herbicides and the risks they pose to the broader environment.

Before reaching for the spray, dust, or turf builder, consider the many available alternatives. Encourage your neighbors to do the same since what they spray on their yard can drift to yours. If repeated infestations of your plants have you bugged, consider native plants - they're more resistant to pests and are adapted to withstand attacks. Carefully assess the reason you consider pesticide use at all. If it is for lawn or other strictly aesthetic uses, find a non-toxic alternative. Remember that your children and pets as well as birds and other wildlife will be in direct contact with whatever is applied to your lawn.