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Garden Pesticides – Protecting Your Family's Health While Maintaining a Beautiful Landscape

We view recreational time outdoors as good for our bodies and good for our souls. So we use fertilizers and pesticides from brands we’ve trusted for years to keep our lawns and gardens bug-free and beautiful. Yet mounting evidence identifies health dangers caused by chemicals in garden pesticides that families – children and pets in particular – are exposed to on a daily basis.


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In fact, in Spring 2008, the EPA ordered Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. to stop selling two products immediately for illegal, unregistered and mis-branded weed and fertilizer products containing a potentially cancer causing and endocrine disrupting pesticide ingredient. These products, marketed with invalid EPA registration numbers, have been recalled due to the active ingredient trifluralin. The EPA says it never reviewed this pesticide, and categorizes trifluralin as a Group C chemical, possible human carcinogen. Dogs chronically exposed to trifluralin have been found to sustain decreased weight gain and effects on the blood and liver.


Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) all pesticides on the market must be evaluated for their threat to human health or the environment, however the basis for evaluation was research provided by the manufacturer. While the EPA has re-evaluated some 9700 produce or food-related pesticide tolerances over the past twelve years and recently banned residential use of dangerous insecticides like diazinon, most sources express a dire need for more extensive, independent study.
Home Depot Canada has decided to revamp its entire home pesticide line in the wake of evidence linking traditional pesticides to health problems. The move follows legislation in the Ontario province of Canada banning the residential use of pesticides. New studies surface all the time confirming links between traditional pesticides – which includes herbicides, fungicides and insecticides – and birth defects, organ damage, reproductive problems, cancer and other health problems. The problems are pervasive – the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides has determined that “of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 13 are probable or possible carcinogens, 14 linked with birth defects, 18 with reproductive defects, 20 with liver or kidney damage, 18 with neurotoxicity, 28 are sensitizers or irritants.”
“The biggest misconception consumers have is that all chemicals registered and sold are safe for their intended use. People think, ‘if I can buy it at my favorite do-it-yourself retailer, it must be safe for me and for the planet’,” asserts Kelly Neylan, founder of organic apparel retailer BuddhiWear and organic cotton advocate. “But people need to do their own research.”1

Who is at risk?

Because the doses are proportionately larger for a small child than an adult, it is estimated that half of our lifetime exposure to pesticides occurs in the first 5 years of life. Pets are at risk for this reason as well. Consider also that these two populations are the closest to the ground and have more skin contact than adults. Other populations with pronounced risk include the elderly, pregnant women, those with asthma and allergies, cancer patients, and those with compromised immune systems.


Garden pesticides impact the environment as well as our bodies. Chemicals are absorbed in the groundwater and washed through our storm water systems then retained in our treated water to re-expose us secondarily. A study in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives concluded that pesticides are present in the urine and saliva of children who eat conventionally grown produce. Malathion, chlorpyrifos and other organophosphates were found in children’s urine samples during portions of the study period where standard grocery produce was consumed. Conversely, during portions of the study where organic (pesticide-free) produce was consumed, these chemicals were not detected or were barely detected. These are chemicals that are banned for residential purposes yet are still commercially available. Your landscaper might be using them, but your typical commercial producer probably is.

What can I do to learn more?
Most people don’t have time to do their own research and the scientific findings and jargon can be difficult to interpret. Healthier alternative pest management strategies are not widely tested so it is difficult to find trustworthy advice. Knowing of these health risks, can homeowners identify the hidden dangers in their tool sheds, replace them with organic strategies and have confidence that garden problems will stay under control? Read on for some basic knowledge to get you started, such as how to recognize signal words on product labels, find reliable alternatives for treatment and use effective preventive measures.
Caution, Warning, Danger!
The most important thing to convey is that “signal words”, found at the beginning of the health portion of any pesticide label content, help you best select the products you can feel safe with, in your own garage and garden. Caution!, followed by Warning!, then Danger! are the universally-recognized safety categorizations assigned to all household products containing chemicals. What they signify is this:


Signal Word
Health Risk
Danger!One taste to one teaspoon may be harmful or fatal to a 180-pound male
One teaspoon to one ounce may be harmful or fatal to a 180-pound male
One ounce or more may be harmful or fatal to a 180-pound male


Most people, even most children, do not ingest pesticides through the mouth. Exposure to common garden chemicals is typically through the lungs and the skin, rather than direct ingestion. But in the case of commercially produced fruits and vegetables, we are ingesting these harmful ingredients through the produce itself, as research has shown.


Also, many people consider their personal exposure to be minimal, through product dilution, limited in time with direct contact and intermittent rather than daily exposure. Many chemicals are bioaccumulative in living beings, meaning the body cannot effectively purge them and small, regular doses can add up to levels of concern over time. In the case of trifluralin, the main ingredient in the Scotts products recently pulled from the shelf, it is categorized as a Hazardous Air Pollutant by the Clean Air Act, a hazardous substance by Superfund standards, and bioaccumulative and toxic by the EPA.

Health Risks

The main areas of concern are carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, reproductive toxins and neurotoxins. Carcinogens cause cancer. Endocrine disruptors are synthetic chemicals that mimic human hormones, confusing our bodies and stimulating abnormal hormonal responses. Reproductive toxins impair normal reproductive activity. Neurotoxins harm our central nervous system.


Endocrine disruptors persist in body fat and mobilize during ovulation, pregnancy and lactation. Pregnant women, their fetuses and neonatal infants are at risk for any exposure the mother has had prior to lactation, including before conception. Endocrine disruptors cause hormonal imbalance, premature puberty, low sperm count, non-viable pregnancy, and reproductive abnormalities. The EPA does not currently evaluate or consider the endocrine disrupting properties of pesticides during registration or re-registration so even a valid EPA registration number is no protection against a health risk from chemicals with endocrine disruptors.

What to Look Out For

Concerned parents and pet owners can get assurances about the safety of the products they bring home by reading product labels and checking into a few good online resources for key information to help make decisions. The National Institute of Health has a fairly robust database that can be searched by product or ingredient to help consumers evaluate common household products of any kind, including pesticides for the home, lawn, garden and pets. Here are some chemicals to look out for:
Herbicides – The herbicide trifluralin has a C classification (possible human carcinogen) according to the EPA, based on its cancer-causing properties in rats. The EPA also recognizes trifluralin as a probable endocrine disruptor. The routes of exposure include oral, respiratory and dermal. Dermal exposure can persist long after actual contact with the chemical is over due to its clothes-clinging properties. Absorption and retention in clothing even after numerous washings has been found to present ongoing exposures to trifluralin according to Toxnet’s Hazardous Substances Data Bank. Also, consumption of agricultural produce or fish contaminated with this chemical exposes living beings to health risks. According to the MSDS sheet for trifluralin, it is extremely toxic to aquatic life and should be kept away from streams, rivers, lakes and sewers, including the storm water runoff from treated areas. The two Scotts products that contain this chemical are “Garden Weed Preventer + Plant Food” and “Miracle Gro Shake ‘n’ Feed All Purpose Plant Food Plus Weed Preventer.” Invalid registration numbers 62355-4 and 538-304 indicate products re-called due to this ingredient. Nevertheless, trifluralin is still available on the consumer and commercial markets.


Other notable herbicides to steer clear of, all surface and groundwater contaminants, are 2,4-D, Mecoprop (MCPP), MCPA, and Dicamba. These are all possible or probable carcinogens, and/or endocrine disruptors. Many are linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Dicamba is a developmental toxin, 2,4-D is found to cause reduced sperm count or increased abnormalities in sperm, and MCPA is linked to reproductive problems and mutagenicity.  Glyphosate has been linked to spontaneous abortion.
Pesticides – Organophosphates refers to a group of insecticides that include neurotoxins (how they kill insects) or nerve gases. They degrade more quickly than organochlorides, such as DDT, but have greater acute toxicity. They include chlorpyrifos, malathion, and parathion. Organophosphates have chronic effects also. Some groups, especially young children, have levels above those deemed acceptable by the EPA. Because OPs generally do not persist in the environment for long periods of time and do not build up in the body fat of humans, the fact that these pesticides were found in such a high percentage of test subjects indicates that most people are routinely exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis. The fruits and vegetables most commonly eaten by children that are conventionally grown with OP pesticides include peaches, apples, grapes, green beans, and pears.


Some consider malathion a possible carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor; it is highly toxic to honeybees thus posing an environmental hazard. Malathion is used to control insect populations, such as mosquitoes. Parathion is not available for residential use and it is illegal for use indoors, however consumers may be contaminated through ingestion of produce treated with this chemical. Parathion is usually used to treat cotton, corn, wheat, soybeans and rice fields. Over 650 agricultural workers have been poisoned with parathion and 100 died.

Chlorpyrifos can enter a child’s body by way of dermal contact, lung exposure and contact with treated surfaces through finger-sucking and eating with the hands. In fact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found chlorpyrifos in 93% of residents sampled and children between the ages of 6 and 11 had exposure levels double that of adults. Symptoms of exposure include headaches, agitation, inability to concentrate, weakness, fatigue, nausea and blurred vision.

The chemicals discussed here are not a complete list of those which may cause health problems. Two important considerations to protect your family’s health are to select produce carefully, buying from local farmers’ markets wherever possible, and to read product labels before purchasing pesticides and insecticides for your lawn and gardens. 

Because chemical solutions to garden problems are abundantly available and attainable cost-wise, gardeners have come to expect the highest standards in terms of garden maintenance, perhaps unnecessarily. Severe infestations of weeds and insects may kill your plants, but managed populations seldom result in little more than cosmetic damage. By eliminating chemical insecticides gardeners promote a healthy presence of good bugs, which help control pests. To prevent chemical exposures in your backyard start by making your property an inhospitable environment for pests and weeds.


Seven Components of a Healthier Pesticide Approach:


  1. Identify the problem
  2. Examine the likely causes
  3. Explore the range of solutions
  4. Read the label!
  5. Get the MSDS
  6. Google the ingredients
  7. Start with the mildest option

Some integrated pest management programs include strict guidelines for using herbicides and pesticides including application and disposal, protection and emergency treatment but these measures don’t address the lingering health risks in our bodies, in our water supply and in our soil. In order to minimize exposure for your family’s health, consider a broad range of solutions for healthy insect and weed control in your garden. While homeopathic remedies are appropriate to this discussion, the widely accepted organic approach to prevention espouses soil quality, appropriate plant selection and siting, crop rotation and natural bug warfare as the cornerstones of organic gardening programs.

Soil quality is essential to good plant health. Soil with high organic content and good aeration and drainage can sustain the healthiest plants and minimize infestations. Add compost to your growing soil and include animal manure, a natural nitrogen source for fertilization, wherever possible. Rotate crops in your vegetable garden and plant nitrogen-generating crops in alternate seasons, plowing them under before replacing them with different crops. Remove weeds before they set seed or mow and bag your clippings as weed flowers emerge. Certain beneficial insects can be purchased to prey on harmful insects, such as tiny pirate bugs to manage thrip, mite and aphid populations in your garden.

The primary step to successful control of unwanted insects is identifying the problem. So often it is site factors causing an infestation and chemical treatment merely addresses the symptoms of that problem without removing the underlying causes. Insect problems are most commonly manifested on weaker plants, so steps to promoted healthy plants will deter many insect pests. 

Are Chemical Alternatives Available?
Homeopathic remedies are generally regarded as safe and inexpensive, however many organic gardeners differ about which remedies work and acknowledge that natural approaches don’t yield optimum results. The organic gardener will tell you that a few pests are healthier than the chemical threats that often accompany the pristinely maintained “mainstream” landscape.

For soft bodied insects garlic teas, hot pepper teas, insecticidal soaps, neem oil and vegetable oils are commonly used natural insecticides. Insecticidal soaps work on contact with insects but will not repel them. Several tablespoons of ground cloves per gallon of water can kill flying insects. Milky spore or beneficial nematode applications to the soil will help with Japanese beetles. Chewing tobacco teas can help fight Japanese beetles also; however tobacco is essentially a toxin that may harm beneficial insects or the plant it is applied to. Jeff Gillman, Associate Professor of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota and author of The Truth About Garden Remedies and The Truth About Organic Gardening, says that nicotine is a toxin more poisonous than 90% of synthetic chemicals and warns for extreme caution when using tobacco teas.2 Peroxide, apple cider vinegar, corn meal and milk can be diluted with water and applied as a fungicide with some success. Crushed egg shells will deter snails and slugs. Beer traps are somewhat effective with slugs. 

The National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns recommends corn gluten meal as a pre-emergent (prevents weed seeds from germinating) weed treatment for lawns. If you apply corn meal gluten in early spring, forego a mid-spring application of nitrogen, since corn meal gluten contains nitrogen. Apply at a rate of 12 pounds per thousand square feet (this application has 1 pound of nitrogen, which is one half a year’s total lawn requirement.) Continue to uproot weed seedlings before they bloom to prevent millions of weed seeds from being released in your yard. Weed after a rain; a moist soil makes best root removal possible. 

Maintaining a landscape organically is not expensive or even difficult. It requires an attitude shift towards giving your garden every natural advantage possible. It requires diligence to stay ahead of pests so that stronger means of control are not necessary. But organic gardening for health requires developing a certain tolerance for weeds and bugs as well. Jeff Gillman says, “One of my favorite ways to deal with pests is to ignore them.”3


1 Kelly Neylan, personal interview, April 30, 2008.

2 Jeff Gillman, personal interview, April 25, 2008.

3 Jeff Gillman, personal interview, April 25, 2008.


(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.)



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Garden Pesticides – Protecting Your Family's Health While Maintaining a Beautiful Landscape:  Created on September 21st, 2008.  Last Modified on March 11th, 2014


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About Cloud Q. Conrad

Cloud Q. Conrad is the principal of Atlanta-based Garden the Planet, a residential landscape design and consulting firm, emphasizing responsible horticultural practices that respect and protect the environment, while maintaining high aesthetic appeal and functionality.



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