We’ve all experienced at least one, but it doesn’t mean we have to live with — or even like — an insect infestation.

Whether it’s an army of ants, spindly spiders, paper-loving silverfish, creepy cockroaches, pesky mosquitoes, or tenacious termites; when insects invade our home, we feel violated. What’s the first thing you do when you see a bug — or full-blown colony of critters? Most people reach for the nearest can of insecticide spray or rush to the store for bait traps.

Before you blast these creepy crawlies with toxic chemicals, you may want to consider this: Pesticides are designed to kill living organisms. Do you really think they’re not affecting your health too?

Reading Pest Control Labels

1950 Black Flag Bug Killer
Image courtesy of clotho98.

Many of the ingredients contained in bug sprays and other pest control methods are linked to a vast number of illnesses. You will find two types of ingredients listed on insecticides:

  • Inert ingredients: By law, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not require manufacturers to list the inert ingredients. However, many of these ingredients have been shown to be more toxic than the active ingredients, although they undergo less safety testing. A good rule of thumb? Avoid products that don’t list all the “inert” or “other” ingredients on the label. If the company isn’t willing to share its product information, there is a chance that there is something they don’t want you to see. Although no longer used by the EPA, you can still see their List 4A: Minimal risk inert ingredients. According to the EPA, “The List 4 and 4A are still referred to by the National Organic Program.” Learn more about EPA-approved inert pesticide ingredients.
  • Active ingredients: Locate this on the label to understand what is killing the insects and, possibly, endangering you or your pets. These ingredients are often provided only as chemical names, so it is a good idea to review each of them using the National Pesticide Information Center’s active ingredient fact sheet to learn about the associated health risks.

Look for the Signal Word

There are several ways to estimate the toxicity of pesticides in your home. One easy way is to look at the signal word, which is an indicator of the toxicity of the product. Every registered pesticide will have the words CAUTION, WARNING, or DANGER on the label, and that word reflects the level of toxicity of the product.

  • Products that say CAUTION are the lowest in toxicity
  • WARNING indicates medium toxicity products
  • DANGER alerts you to the most toxic products

Always read the warning on the label. If a product is labeled DANGER — or even WARNING — think twice before using it in your home, or on your lawn or garden.

Health Effects From Toxic Pest Control

Image courtesy of siamesepuppy.

Research reveals that children living in households where pesticides are used can suffer elevated rates of leukemia, brain cancer, and soft tissue sarcoma. Also, a study published by the American Cancer Society found an increased risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) in people exposed to common herbicides and fungicides. Sadly, the list of risks goes on, including a study that reveals that the collective damage to American children’s brains from pesticides — such as like chlorpyrifos — equates to a loss of 16.9 million IQ points. The study also warns that rising rates of autism and ADHD may be connected to exposures to chemicals like chlorpyrifos.

Children are especially prone to pesticide contamination. Think about all the places they crawl and walk — and what they pick up and put in their mouths. Cut out the insecticides in your home to improve your children’s health.

7 Nontoxic Pest Control Alternatives

Ready to rid your routine of these harsh chemicals? Here are seven nontoxic alternatives to toxic pest control. Always be prepared to refer to the EPA’s Introduction to Integrated Pest Management, which offers an “effective, environmentally sensitive approach” to pest control, with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.

  1. Locate the source of where/why the pests are coming in and eliminate the root problem. For instance, don’t leave food out, store dry food in tightly sealed glass containers, make sure trash is covered, and fill the entry holes with a nontoxic caulking.
  2. Follow the pheromone trail the ants leave and spray with soapy water, vinegar, coffee grounds, or hot pepper spray. Use red chili powder, paprika, cinnamon, or dried peppermint at the point of entry. This will create a barrier and prevent the ants from spreading.
  3. Avoid toxic flea collars. Instead, feed your pet brewer’s yeast, either by mixing it with their food or in tablet form.
  4. For termites, fleas, cockroaches, and spiders, you can mop your floor with a small portion of borax; just be careful if you have little ones because it can be poisonous if ingested.
  5. For fleas, ticks, and flies, spray garlic in your yard and on plants.
  6. For cockroaches or carpenter ants, sprinkle the area with diatomaceous earth (DE); a nontoxic powder that’s the fossilized remains of marine phytoplankton. In the case of carpenter ants, you must inject the DE into the nest. It works great on any insect with an exoskeleton.
  7. For mosquitoes, try a nontoxic spray that contains oil of lemon eucalyptus as recommended by the CDC. Or, make your own bug spray, using natural essential oils. (Limit use of DEET to high-risk areas only.)

Looking for a safer pest control service in your state? Use the Beyond Pesticides locator to find one near you.

Feature image courtesy of taufuuuOriginally published on June 25, 2015, this article was updated in May 2021.

By Lisa Beres

Lisa Beres is a healthy home authority, Baubiologist, published author, professional speaker and Telly award-winning media personality who teaches busy people how to eliminate toxins from their home with simple, step-by-step solutions to improve their health. With her husband, Ron, she is the co-founder of The Healthy Home Dream Team and the 30-day online program Change Your Home. Change Your Health. She is the author of the children’s book My Body My House and co-author of Just Green It!: Simple Swaps to Save Your Health and the Planet, Learn to Create a Healthy Home! Green Nest Creating Healthy Homes and The 9 to 5 Greened: 10 Steps to a Healthy Office. Lisa’s TV appearances include "The Rachael Ray Show," "Nightly News with Brian Williams," "TODAY," "The Doctors," "Fox & Friends," "Chelsea Lately" and "The Suzanne Somers Show."