Pesticides are designed to control the nuisance and damage caused by pests, and have contributed to reducing disease and increasing food production worldwide. But the availability and widespread use of pesticides also has the potential to pose unexpected risks, both directly and indirectly, to our health.

In the US, over 4.5 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year, with 75% used in agriculture and 25% in homes and gardens. The prevalence and widespread use of pesticides has increased our exposure to a variety of chemicals, while the long-term health implications are still being studied.

Pesticides affect different people differently. Children may be more sensitive to some pesticides than adults. Compared to adults, they breathe in more air and eat more food relative to their body size, increasing their exposure. When they play on floors or lawns or put objects in their mouths, they increase their chance of exposure to pesticides used in yards or lawns. Also, their developing bodies may not break down some chemicals as effectively as adults.

People of any age with asthma or other chronic diseases may be more likely than healthy individuals to get sick after pesticide exposure. Some individuals are also more sensitive to the odor or other irritant effects of certain pesticides.

But no matter what their individual sensitivities, people in the greatest danger of pesticide illness are those whose exposure is highest, such as workers who mix or apply pesticides. People who use pesticides in their homes may also be overexposed and become ill, especially if they do not carefully follow the directions on the product label. People living near agricultural fields are more likely than urban residents to be exposed to farm chemicals (although their exposure may not necessarily be high enough to cause harmful effects).

What can you do to minimize pesticide exposure?

1. Buy organic and locally grown fruit and vegetables.

Buying organic, in-season produce from your local market is the best assurance of pesticide-free produce. To identify fruit grown organically, look at the little sticker – the number should be five digits and start with “9” (e.g. 94223). If you are on a limited budget, look for organic choices for the produce your family eats the most. National surveys have also shown that fruits and vegetables from farmers’ markets contain less pesticides even if they’re not organic.

2. Wash fruits and vegetables before eating.

Commercial vegetable and fruit washes are available which are formulated to remove chemical residue from produce. Examples are Environné and Vitanet, available online or at your local health food stores and some supermarkets. You can also make your own produce wash using a very diluted solution of mild dish-washing detergent (1 tsp detergent per gallon, or 4 liters, water).
For grapes, strawberries, green beans, and leafy vegetables, swirl the foods in a dilute solution of dish detergent and water at room temperature for 5 to 10 seconds, then rinse with slightly warm water. For other fruits and vegetables, use a soft brush to scrub the food with the solution for about 5 to 10 seconds, then rinse with slightly warm water.

3. Know which fruits and vegetables have higher levels of pesticide residue.

Much of the health risks associated with pesticide residues on produce are concentrated in a relatively small number of fruits and vegetables. By knowing which fruits and vegetables pose the highest risks, you can take adequate precaution, such as washing the food more carefully, peeling the skin on some fruit, or avoiding commercial sources. To learn which foods have higher pesticide residues, see our page Pesticides and Produce.

4. Grow your own produce.

A backyard garden plot as small as 400 sq. ft. can provide much of the required produce for a family of four. Organic methods can replace the need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and tending the garden is a healthy activity for children. Planting perennial crops like asparagus, blueberries and strawberries will provide crops for years with very little work. Even homegrown produce should be washed before eating, however, since pesticides are sprayed aerially in some regions of the country, and other wind-blown contaminants may reach your garden. To learn more, see our pages on Backyard Vegetable Gardening, Natural Garden Pest Control.

5. Use non-toxic methods for controlling insects in the home and garden.

Using chemical-based commercial insect pest control treatments may introduce chemicals to your home which pose more of a threat than the insects they are designed to kill. EPA spokesman Dale Kemery recommends that parents try other pest-control tactics before resorting to pesticide use in the home or garden. There are effective, non-toxic methods for controlling insect problems in the home such as diatomaceous earth, which will kill a broad range of common indoor insects without posing any hazard to your family or pets.

To learn more about safe methods for controlling insect pests, see our page on Natural Insect Pest Control.

In the garden, growing healthy plants using organic methods is the best pest deterrent, and there are a variety of natural pest control methods such as beneficial insects, non-toxic remedies, traps and barriers. To learn more, see our page Natural Garden Pest Control.

6. Have a ‘no shoes’ policy in your home.

When visitors to your home walk across a lawn that has been treated with chemical fertilizers and herbicides, residue from these chemicals may be tracked into your home. In some instances, these residues may last for years in carpeting and on floor surfaces. The simple practice of leaving shoes at the door will minimize this risk and reduce your home cleaning chores. You can provide inexpensive house slippers for guests who are unused to going shoeless indoors.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Urinary Metabolites of Organophosphate Pesticides: Maryse F. Bouchard, PhD, David C. Bellinger, PhD, Robert O. Wright, MD, MPH, Marc G. Weisskopf, PhD

Health Hazards of Pesticides – Rupali Das, MD, MPH, California Department of Health Services, Michael O’Malley, MD, MPH, University of California, Davis, Laura Styles, MPH, Public Health Institute

To learn about non-toxic pest control methods for your home, see Natural Insect Pest Control.
For natural and non-toxic methods for your garden, see Natural Garden Pest Control.
To learn how to avoid using lawn care chemicals, see Natural Lawn Care.
To purchase non-toxic pest control products, see Shop/Natural pest Control.

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