You may have seen the news about the bedbug outbreak that took center stage at Paris Fashion Week this year. There were videos all over social media of Paris hotel rooms, hostels, and public transit crawling with bedbugs, which prompted a lot of people to worry about those nasty critters coming back to their cities in the suitcases of tourists. Unfortunately, that was a pretty reasonable concern. There’s a global resurgence of bedbugs, and a major cause is that bedbugs have evolved pesticide resistance. And that phenomenon is becoming more and more common with all kinds of pests worldwide.
It's fall, temperatures are dropping, and it is prime time for all sorts of pests to make their way indoors for the winter. You may start to see unwanted critters in your home and wonder about the best way to deal with them. But frustratingly, a lot of pest control products on the market are potentially harmful to humans, pets, and our environment, and they might not even work that well. Thankfully, there are lots of strategies out there to manage pests without bringing toxic chemicals into your home and environment.
If you grew up like I did, there was always a can of Raid or a box of ant poison just kind of… around the house. Spraying chemicals and poisons to deal with pests used to be extremely common, and it’s still tempting to go for a quick fix if you’re dealing with an infestation in the home. But despite ready availability, the pesticides at the store can be risky for your health. And before jumping to use any pesticide, it’s worth learning a bit of history -- specifically, the case of DDT.
DDT is a highly toxic insecticide that, while quite effective, is also extremely harmful to the environment, wildlife, and human health. Before it was banned in the U.S. in 1972, it was used widely to control all kinds of infestations, from pests in agricultural fields to bugs in the American home. In fact, DDT is what was used to combat the last big surge in bedbugs globally.
Unfortunately, after decades of this pesticide being sprayed all over the world, we learned that DDT is what is called a “persistent organic pollutant (POP),” meaning it stays in the environment, accumulates in living organisms, and continuously poses a threat to health and environmental wellbeing. DDT decimated whole populations of wildlife, and the stories of the health effects are quite shocking. We’re still reckoning with the consequences of this toxic chemical today.
So why talk about DDT? Basically, when discussing using any pesticide, it’s worth keeping in mind the fact that despite being told DDT was safe for decades, it’s clear that it was never really safe, and it did a lot of damage to our world because of how widely it was used. As a global community, if we care about the health of our planet, we should be highly aware of this history when dealing with pesticides and treat them with extreme care.
And then there’s the issue of pesticide resistance. So even if a pesticide is deemed to be safe for use (which always comes with some serious caveats on the label), there’s a global trend of growing pesticide resistance across species. This is partially due to climate change, and partially due to overuse of pesticides. Pests have short lifespans, so populations can evolve quickly to not be affected by previously harmful chemicals. So, not only can spraying pesticides be harmful to human health, it can also be counterproductive and ineffective in the long run.
That’s definitely not to say that there isn’t a time and place for responsible use of pesticides – our global agricultural system needs responsible pest management to keep the world fed, and we use pesticides to help stop the spread of devastating diseases like malaria, just to name a few. But as an individual, especially inside your own home, it’s worth trying some alternatives before reaching for the pesticide sprays.
Depending on where you live, you will probably have different specific pests that you’re dealing with -- different animals and insects thrive in different climates. But whether you’re talking about rats, mice, ants, termites, bedbugs, or anything else, there are some general methods to try that may help you keep the critters at bay.
No matter what pest you’re dealing with, it’s going to want a home and a snack. One of the best things you can do in your house, garage, and yard is to avoid giving pests places to live and things to eat.
For example, rodents like rats and mice build hidden nests, and they like soft things. Piles of rags, leaves, shredded cardboard, even insulation are good materials for them. So the more you keep your living spaces clear of this kind of stuff, the less they’ll want to move in.
Bugs like bedbugs and cockroaches also need to hide, and they like clutter. So keep closets and corners of the house neat to make hiding harder! And if you do have an infestation, it will be easier to track where the bugs are hiding if things are tidy.
A lot of pests, like ants, fruit flies, and mice are drawn to food scraps, so keeping crumbs and other tempting snacks out of the picture is good practice as well. Try to keep all foods in sealed containers, especially overnight.
For almost any insect problem, check out diatomaceous earth. It’s made from fossilized aquatic organisms called diatoms, whose skeletons are made of a natural substance called silica. This silica basically breaks down insects’ exoskeletons. It’s not poisonous, and it doesn’t need to be ingested to be effective—the bugs just need to walk over it. Also, because it is already prevalent in our environment, it isn’t known to be harmful to wildlife, and as long as it’s not inhaled in large quantities, it isn’t dangerous to humans, either.
For a good breakdown of the many uses for diatomaceous earth in the home and garden, check out this guide.
If you do a little research, it turns out that most pests are quite particular about scents and tastes. You can use this to your advantage and use smells to discourage them!
Ants, for example, really don’t like cinnamon. Try lining windowsills where you know they’re sneaking in with cinnamon or spraying cinnamon oil to remove their pathway.
A lot of insects, like termites and mosquitoes, do not like citrus oils and scents. So spraying orange or lemon oils in affected areas can be enough to make the bugs want to find another place to hang out.
We all know moths are drawn to light, but it turns out a lot of bugs are. There are lots of light-based traps on the market that work by drawing bugs in, then either trapping or zapping them on contact. All with just a little UV light!
If you’re dealing with a rodent problem, having a cat or dog around can help a lot. The smell of a cat’s pheromones alone can be enough to make rodents move out.
You can also look into using natural predators to your advantage. For example, spraying nematodes on your foundation (little worms smaller than you can even see) can help eliminate termites because nematodes are a natural predator. Or, if you live in a rural area, try putting a bat house on your property to help keep mosquitoes at bay. Just make sure to do research to make sure you’re not encouraging a different pest problem!
If you’ve tried all of the tricks for controlling pests and you’re still struggling, definitely don’t hesitate to call in the professionals. Pests can carry diseases and destroy property, so it’s important to deal with them properly! That said, try to find a pest control company in your area that uses green or eco-friendly management techniques. They’ll know which products to use safely to control pests without harming the environment, and they’ll probably be able to help you prevent further problems as well.