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The History and ABCs of Pesticides

By HHI Staff

Chemical pesticides derived from nature have been popular for centuries against many types of household pests. However, in more recent times, scores of petroleum-derived substances that are toxic to pests have been introduced. Unfortunately, it was not until after their introduction, and widespread use, that the effects of many of these newer pesticides on human beings was more completely understood. (This article is from the archives of the original Healthy House Institute, and the information was believed accurate at the time of writing).


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Spraying Pesticide

Early Pesticides


These days, most Americans commonly use chemical applications to solve their household pest problems. Actually, this is not a new concept. In the first century AD, the ancient Greeks had already recognized that arsenic (a toxic mineral element) would exterminate many pest populations. In the Orient, the Chinese were also using arsenic compounds as well as various natural-oil extracts. By the 1700s in Europe, both tobacco juice (whose nicotine is poisonous) and pyrethrum (chrysanthemum flower heads) were found to be effective pesticides.


Because of great advancements in chemistry, the 1800s saw the introduction of pesticides created from copper oxide and a combination of copper and arsenic salts. Later, during the 1930s, pesticides based on inorganic heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, were developed. However, these heavy-metal compounds were usually not used around homes, instead they were used on crops growing in the fields. In any case, because they accumulated in the soil and were only effective at levels that were found to be toxic to non-pest species, they have since been virtually abandoned.


Modern Organic Pesticides


The so-called modern pesticide era began with the creation of synthetic organic pesticides that eventually replaced the overtly toxic heavy-metal pesticides. However, it’s now known that they, too, have potentially serious negative health consequences.


Modern Organic Pesticide Types


Many modern pesticides are known as organic pesticides. In this case, “organic” doesn’t mean pure, natural, and untainted as it does with organic food. As applied to pesticides, the word organic means that these compounds contain carbon atoms (generally occurring in chains), and it’s these carbon atoms that happen to be the basis of the molecules making up all living organisms. (Actually, organic pesticides also contain hydrogen and may include other elements such as oxygen, sulfur, phosphorus, chlorine, bromine, or nitrogen). Most organic pesticides are man-made compounds derived from petroleum, which itself ultimately originated from microscopic aquatic organisms that lived millions of years ago.


Surprising to many people, organic pesticides first began to be used in 1920s. However, it was not until 1939 that organic pesticides became popular. That was when the organic compound DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), (which had first been synthesized back in 1874) was observed to kill most pests while seemingly not harming humans or the environment. Soon, DDT was sprayed on almost everything, and everyone, with a pest problem—or a potential one. It became known as an inexpensive “chemical wonder.” Its success inspired the creation of other organochlorine pesticides (organic pesticide compounds containing chlorine)—primarily between 1940 and 1970.


Other organic pesticides, classified as organophosphate types (organic pesticide compounds containing phosphate), were introduced after World War II. Interestingly, many of these formulations were based on Nazi research.


Modern Organic Pesticides’ Toxic Consequences


The effects on humans, and other non-pest populations, of being exposed to some of the older, more natural, but still toxic, pesticide compounds (such as arsenic and heavy-metal-based compounds) soon became apparent—and fairly well known. However, this was not true with many of the synthetic organochlorine pesticides. Unfortunately, they’ve now been found to have toxic side effects that, for years, were unsuspected by most people. It was Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, originally published in 1962, that helped arouse public concern over the possible environmental consequences (to birds, etc.) of these supposedly “safe” pesticides.


Unfortunately, using synthetic, organic chemicals to eliminate pests has not only harmed nature, but has had a human toll, something that has also become evident. Symptoms vary as to dose, chemical composition, type, length of exposure, and the individual. Certain organochlorine pesticides have been associated with the onset of chloracne (a severe, and often chronic, type of acne due to chlorine exposure), lowered sperm counts, peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage in the limbs, feet, or hands), and some forms of cancer. New research now indicates some organic-chemical pesticides may actually mimic natural estrogen compounds. It’s speculated that such estrogen-like action may lead to hormonal disturbances, which in turn could lead to a variety of abnormal conditions. (This could account for the lowered sperm counts, by the way.) Despite more product warnings and governmental regulations, occupational physicians continue to see patients who have become ill on the job due to the toxicity of these modern pesticides.


Although most pesticide-poisoning cases are, in fact, linked to actually working in pesticide-producing chemical plants, or to using agricultural pesticides on crops, that’s not the full extent of the problem. Some pesticide-toxicity cases have turned up in homeowners, and their families, after their houses were treated for termites, or other common pests. Most of these situations are probably the result of pesticide applications that were incompetently done. However, in at least some cases, illnesses have occurred despite “correct” usage. Interestingly, a number of individuals with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) firmly believe that they first acquired their condition as a result of a specific organic pesticide application that either occurred at their home or at their workplace.


Despite having some knowledge that synthetic organic pesticides can be harmful, it seems most Americans still routinely turn to them to solve their household-pest predicaments. It’s easy to understand why. Consumer-oriented “bug hotels,” “insect bombs,” rodent pellets, and anti-flying-insect aerosol cans are conveniently sold in colorful, handy-sized packages in nearly all hardware, grocery, and discount stores. These products require little physical effort, or money, to quickly kill many problem creatures. And for widespread or serious pest problems, most people still contract pest-management companies to spray, inject, or fumigate their homes with synthetic organic pesticides.


By the way, if you’d like to determine if typical pesticides are present in your home, you can purchase a SpotCheck test kit for surfaces. These are sold by Befit Enterprises Ltd. Home test kits for water-soluble pesticide in the air, water, and soil are available from American Environmental Health Foundation. If you have any air-quality specialists in your geographic area, they may be able to do more thorough testing. To find one, look in your classified telephone directory or ask your local board of health for suggestions.


Alternative Pest-Control Measures


If you want to use safer, less-toxic pest-control alternatives, there are quite a few available. In the following sections, you’ll be introduced to a number of them.


Neutralizing Allergenic Properties of Pests


In some situations, where the main concern about a pest’s presence is the allergic reactions it causes, the use of simple allergen neutralizers can be used. This is most commonly done against microscopic dust mites. What an allergen neutralizer does is to inactivate offending allergenic properties. In reality, what this means is that an active agent (commonly a tannic-acid/water solution which can be derived from black tea) is used to alter the structure of certain proteins making up both dust-mite body parts and dust-mite feces. Once these proteins have been changed, the allergic person’s immune system no longer recognizes them as “dust-mite” proteins, proteins that it’s already determined are “the alien enemy,” and so ignores them. Therefore, the dust-mite antibodies (specialized molecules that, in allergies, bind themselves to allergens) remain dormant and no histamines (highly unstable, reactive compounds released to destroy them) are released. Thus, the dust-mite allergic person won’t experience the typical dust-mite-allergy symptoms that histamines can cause, such as inflammation, swelling, etc. in the respiratory system.


For some allergic people, the use of allergen neutralizers is all they feel is necessary to combat the dust mites in their homes. However, these products must be sprayed over carpets and upholstery every 60 days (they don’t seem particularly effective on thick mattresses). Then, too, tannic acid sprays have the potential to stain light-colored fabrics and fibers. It’s not surprising that many people with dust-mite allergens try multiple approaches, for example by regular and thorough home cleaning, as well as using some type of allergen neutralizers.


Alternative Pesticides and Capture Methods in General


Although most people still prefer the quick, sure effectiveness of synthetic, organic pesticides, growing numbers of people prefer to use less-toxic means. As a result, pesticides derived from natural plant extracts are again becoming more available. These include chrysanthemum-derived pyrethrum (powdered chrysanthemum flower heads) and pyrethrin (a liquid extract from chrysanthemum-flower heads), as well as a variety of tobacco-based products whose active ingredients are nicotine compounds, and d-Limonene (derived from orange peels). Such plant compounds, while usually biodegradable (i.e. pyrethrin is rapidly broken down by ultraviolet radiation—in other words, by exposure to sunlight) and are much less toxic to humans than synthetic organic pesticides. However, they are, after all, active substances and should not be used indiscriminately.


Take pyrethrin for example. Pyrethrin works as a natural pesticide, apparently because it can chemically break down a specific enzyme (acetyl cholinesterase) present in animals (Note: Here the term “animal” represents the broad class of living things). Acetyl cholinestrase’s job is to counter, or “turn off” acetyl choline, a nerve stimulant. However, after pyrethrin has destroyed the acetyl cholinesterase, nerves no longer have the means to turn off, ever. The pest dies as a result. Not surprisingly, pyrethrin (and other plant-derived pesticides) could affect pets and humans, at least to some degree. Nicotine, is another type of nervous-system agent. In this case, the nicotine has the ultimate effect of causing paralysis. This compound (which can be absorbed through the skin) has long been known to cause respiratory failure and paralysis in humans. So powerful is nicotine that it seems only two or three drops of it, in a purified form, placed in the mouth of an adult human, will quickly prove to be fatal. Fortunately, pure concentrations are rarely encountered, but it’s clear that nicotine should be used wisely. Finally, the compound d-Limonene is a natural solvent capable of destroying the waxy coatings of insect respiratory systems. For humans, it can be a skin irritant.


In addition, relatively safe powders such as boric acid, diatomaceous earth or DE (a fine silica powder made up of the cell walls of microscopic algae), and even talc are regaining some popularity as more-natural pesticides. Again, these are much safer than most synthetic organic pesticides, but they should also be used with care. Boric acid acts as a type of digestive poison (a lethal substance that must be ingested to work). It can also sometimes act as a contact poison (a lethal substance that acts on, or is able to penetrate through the outer surfaces, to work). However, according to the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network (NPTN), which is an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) sponsored service, researchers are unsure exactly how boric acid and other boron-containing pesticides actually work. Naturally, such a powder should not be used in a manner, or stored, where children or pets could ingest it. Diatomaceous earth, is a desiccant, or drying agent. It kills by literally drying up body moisture. This substance is not something you want to inhale (especially if you have asthma), even though it would take much more to dry up a large animal, like a pet or human, than a tiny insect. DE could still be quite irritating and has the potential to cause silicosis, a lung disease. Heat-treated diatomaceous earth increases the chances of acquiring this condition, so if you decide to use DE, make certain it’s not heat treated. Talc is used to block the spiracles (body pores used by insects for respiration) of ants, so they suffocate. In humans, breathing enough talc and cause talcosis, a lung disease.


In certain circumstances, high heat or electric shock are being utilized as pest eliminators. Also, a wider range of trapping products are now being marketed, and homemade trapping methods are being devised and used. These include snap traps, live-capture traps, special sticky-substance traps, pheromone traps (traps that have compounds in them that mimic natural attractant chemicals to capture mature adults, usually males), and even lights over water. All these particular approaches generally target specific pests. They can be placed and removed at any time, and, best of all, they have little capacity to inadvertently create human or environmental side effects.


Alternative Pest Deterrents in General


Using pest deterrents—which are meant to discourage the presence of pests, but are not designed to kill or capture them—is another less-toxic approach to dealing with household pests. As you might suspect, these are nearly always less toxic than using synthetic organic pesticides. Therefore, oil of pennyroyal (extract from a mint-family plant) and eucalyptus oil (oil from eucalyptus trees) are regaining favor. With these particular oils (and similar ones), it’s their rather intense natural odor that tends to act as an effective pest repellent in certain situations. (Of course, they aren’t uniformly effective against all pests.) Unfortunately, some humans, especially many sensitive individuals, also find their odor repelling, as well as persistent.


Another method of deterring pests is using physical barriers. Of course, screening and netting are obvious examples of how simple nontoxic mesh fabrics can easily bar mosquito, spider, and other insect entry. However, there are also less-well-known barrier approaches. For example, it’s been shown that having a layer of 12-grit sand surrounding your home’s foundation can act as a fairly effective obstacle to subterranean termites.


Other types of pest deterrents include ultrasonic units, which have been promoted to ward off a wide variety of household pest species. Ultrasonic units are said to work because the ultra-high-pitched whine they emit is almost unbearable to most pest species but isn’t heard by humans (or cats and dogs). Ultrasonic units vary in size from small battery-operated pendants to fairly large, freestanding, plug-in models. The very small pet pendants are marketed primarily as flea deterrents, and the similar-sized models for people as mosquito deterrents. However, research has established that ultrasonic pest controls are not effective against fleas, rodents, bats, etc. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission has even stated that they are ineffective.


Implementing Household Pest-Control Measures


Knowing when and how to use alternative pest control measures is imperative, if you are to safely and effectively solve a pest problem. Sometimes, though, there are roadblocks which you’ll encounter in your attempts at using them. You may even find you have to use a more toxic procedure. In any case, it’s best to be as well-informed, and as well-prepared, as possible.


Alternative Pest-Control Information Sources


If you have decided you want to use less-toxic pest-control measures in your household, it’s important to have alternative home pest-management information on hand. That way, you’ll know what to do immediately if a particular pest shows up. While this book can act as a good basic source for the most common pests, and the most common less-toxic solutions, you may also want to have more thorough literature on hand (or know where you can get it quickly), to consult when necessary.


Some examples of good alternative pest-control publications are the low-cost, well-researched, multiple-page, household-pest fact sheets available from the Washington Toxics Coalition. From the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network (NPTN), you can order low-cost EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) booklets. An excellent, small, inexpensive paperback to consider owning is Least Toxic Home Pest Control by Dan Stein. Your favorite bookseller may have it. If not, you can order it from the Washington Toxics Coalition. One of the most complete low-toxicity pest manuals is the voluminous 715-page hardback, Common-Sense Pest Control by William Olkowski, Sheila Daar, and Helga Olkowski. You may be able to find it in your local library’s reference collection.


By the way, a book you may want to have in your home collection that was written by a physician is Designer Poisons: How to Protect Your Home From Toxic Pesticides by Marion Moses MD. The author, by the way, belongs to The Pesticide Education Center. Again, you should be able to get a copy through your library or favorite bookseller.


For even more written information, you might want to contact your county extension agent, who sometimes has free informational materials on less-toxic pest control. Finally, you’ll definitely want to check your local libraries and bookstore to see what appropriate books they currently have.


If you find you need personal, one-on-one help, you may want to call the Washington Toxics Coalition. This group is a “non-profit organization dedicated to preventing pollution in industry, agriculture, and the home.” It offers a “Toxic Hotline” telephone service, but only to answer questions not already covered in their publications. By the way, if you join them, you’ll receive their quarterly newsletter, Alternatives. Another excellent source of information is the Bio-Integral Resource Center (BIRC). This organization (of which the authors of Common-Sense Pest Control are an integral part) offers less-toxic pest-control consultations to its members. It describes itself as a “non-profit organization dedicated to providing practical least-toxic methods for pest management.” Annual membership includes your choice of quarterly newsletters: IPM Practitioner (for professionals) and Common Sense Pest Control Quarterly (for consumers and non-professionals). Membership also allows you to call them for specific pest-control answers.


In addition, you may want to call the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network (NPTN) Hotline. This is a free, EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) sponsored service that can answer many of your questions. It’s staffed by pesticide specialists with access to a wide range of information. By the way, at the same location is the National Antimicrobial Information Network (NAIN). Finally, you’ll want to check your classified phone directory to see if there’s a less-toxic pest-control company nearby. Someone there may be knowledgeable, and be able to quickly perform the alternative pest control work you desire.


Obstacles to Using Alternative Pest Control


Unfortunately, at this point, it must be noted that sometimes you come up against obstacles that make it difficult to use the safer pest-control alternatives you’d like to, especially against termites. For example, some banks, mortgage institutions, and insurance companies will only authorize the use of the familiar types of chemical termiticides. After all, these business people want to make sure that your home will continue to be in good shape; they have a real economic stake in it. Therefore, understandably, they tend to want to use the “tried and true” means that seem to have worked well to protect other homes they’ve mortgaged, insured, etc. in the past.


To get around this problem, you can use literature provided by the books and organizations listed above to thoroughly and technically, make your case. If that doesn’t work, you may have to spend some time finding another mortgage lender and/or insurer that’ll agree with your less-toxic approach.


Another obstacle you may come across is that the safe, effective, alternative control measures you want to use haven’t yet been legally classified as “registered pesticides” in your state. They may, in fact, be effective and less toxic, but unless they are registered, a pest control professional may not want to, or legally be able to, use them. Finally, in some cases, it may be most effective to spot-treat with a toxic synthetic organic pesticide to successfully eliminate a particular infestation.


All this is not meant to discourage you from trying to use less-toxic alternative pest-control measures, but rather to let you know of the possible problems you may encounter. The good new is, if you’re determined to use less-toxic means to control your household pests, in most cases you’ll be able to do so with very satisfactory results.


When Typical Pesticides Must be Used


Now, in those (hopefully rare) situations where you have little choice but to use typical pesticides, don’t feel you’ve lost control of the situation. Instead, take it upon yourself to actively make sure that only a very reputable, licensed, highly-trained professional does the job. That means you’ll want to talk with the pesticide company management, see their certification, and request that someone who has successfully done the work for several years perform your job, too. You’ll also want to know of any written guarantees, warranties, and bonding that covers the success or failure related to eliminating the pests, and also how damages to your home or to your family because of misapplication, negligence, etc. would be covered.


By the way, it’s a good idea to inquire at your local better business bureau to see if any complaints have been registered against the particular company your interested in using. (Note: Sometimes, you may not get specific reasons for the complaints. However, it’s often good to know if others were dissatisfied for any reason when it comes to using a firm that utilizes potentially dangerous pesticides in or around your home).


When you decide on a company, make sure that you emphasize that you want as little pesticide as necessary used—to do the job effectively—and no more. Then, too, no one should be in the home when the treatment is being employed. This is especially important for chemically sensitive or asthmatic persons who, by practicing prudent avoidance, may want to stay away for several additional days or weeks.


So, in the end, have toxic pesticides applied only “with your eyes wide open,” knowing you did everything you could to make it as safe for your family and home as you could. After that, don’t think negatively. In other words, don’t let your apprehension be the cause for stress and other health problems that the pesticide itself may not have played any direct role in causing. It is possible that the pesticide, if applied correctly and sparingly, will not cause harm to anyone except the pests it was meant to harm. Then, the next time a minor situation comes up, you may be able use less-toxic methods.


(This article is from the archives of the original Healthy House Institute, and the information was believed accurate at the time of writing).



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The History and ABCs of Pesticides:  Created on April 14th, 2012.  Last Modified on May 5th, 2013


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