By: Wishy Kane
Image courtesy of Unsplash
The beginning of a new gardening season is almost upon us. Considering all the time and money gardeners invest in their home-based agriculture, it's understandable that people involved want to mitigate the risk of crops being plowed down by disease, pests, and other organic complications. Pesticides, which are any chemicals formulated or used to kill the organisms that carry risks toward homes and crops, remain increasingly popular with gardeners and other homeowners aiming to protect their homes from termites, venomous spiders, and dangerous microbes. While pesticides continue to become more effective at eradicating pests, they also continue to become more dangerous to humans. It is even more urgent to consider whether the risk of widespread collateral damage is worth using toxic chemical pesticides, as well as find safer and natural replacements for them.
The dangers of residential pesticide use must be more widely addressed. Pest control measures are linked to symptoms ranging from skin and eye irritation to the development of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. Aside from correlation to long-term debilitating conditions, pesticide exposure has also been linked to acute toxicity deaths.
While the rate varies significantly by state, the CDC paints a harrowing image of the current situation regarding pesticide toxicity. The CDC’s Environmental Public Health Tracking network reported that in 2017, nearly 46 per 100,000 Oklahoma residents were exposed to pesticides in residential areas. Following closely behind were Arkansas with nearly 42 residents per 100,000 in residential areas, Utah at nearly 41, Kentucky at over 39, and New Mexico at over 38. [Residential areas are not the only concern: the same data suggests that workplace exposure lingers between under 1 to up to 5 per 100,000, with the exception of Nebraska, which experienced over 5 exposures per 100,000 residents. Approximately 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the U.S. See Fig. 1.] Congress is taking action in mitigating these risks with the Protect America’s Children From Toxic Pesticides Act of 2023 (S.269), which was introduced by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry this month. Like its predecessor of the same name from 2021, the bill focuses on the limited restrictions on pesticide usage. The bill addresses the startling lag the United States has had in the pesticide safety arena, with it allowing the use of 72 pesticides banned by the European Union.
Image Source: Public Domain
Watershed Regressions for Pesticides (WARP) - Atrazine, 2012
Science Connected Magazine provides four holistic alternatives to use in place of chemical pesticides: predators, parasites, companion planting, and “soft” chemicals. Predator-based pest control measures include introducing ladybird larvae, birds, frogs, and toads, which can control flourishing populations of aphids, slugs and snails, caterpillars, and more. Parasites have a similar implementation with a tighter mode of action. For example, wasps can lay their eggs directly inside of pests, which are afterward consumed by larvae as they hatch. Companion planting is a preventative measure that is already popular in organic gardening for its collateral benefits to soil nutrient levels and flavor. For example, herbs including garlic, basil, and oregano planted with tomatoes can improve soil quality, enhance tomato flavor, and repel red spider mites, mosquitos, and parasitic bugs. Similarly, tomatoes planted alongside rose bushes protect roses from the pervasive black spot disease. “Soft” chemicals least replicate a natural environment with thriving eco-diversity, but they can still be useful. Science Connected Magazine continues that diluted household soaps can be beneficial, but sensitive plants may require specially formulated soaps found at garden centers. It continues in the “soft” chemical category that home garden pest control can benefit from plant oils like eucalyptus, rosemary, and lavender.
Additionally, The Spruce addresses the differences in application methods for commercial organic pesticides, falling primarily into the families of granules or dusts, systemic measures, and sprays. The Spruce explains that each method has a different purpose. Granules or dusts are generally topically applied to the ground and at times need to be watered after application, and they target ground-level pests like snails, beetles, and cockroaches. Systemic measures are liquid chemicals absorbed by either roots or leaves of the plant and produce their pesticidal measure upon direct consumption by the pests themselves. It continues that while it is a slower-acting pesticide due to the absorption process, biopesticides can control populations of destructive caterpillars and others work for any leaf-eating pests. Sprays can consist of repellants or suffocant chemicals formulated to prevent problematic insects’ breathing ability.
Choosing an organic pesticide requires careful consideration. The IFAS Extension of the University of Florida addresses that many organic home gardeners depend on online information for safe, organic, nontoxic pesticidal measures, but many can cause damage of their own accord. Some of the most common recipes in gardening circles include common dish soap, which can damage plant leaves through the powerful oil-killing qualities inherent in detergent soaps, and vinegar or alcohol. These substances can cause phytotoxic damage to plants along with controlling pest populations. IFAS Extension explains that the major concerns with these recipes center around improper ingredient selection, irregular dilution, and the common failure to focus on targeting particular pests, as opposed to pesticidal measures that will damage both detrimental and beneficial organisms.
In short, research points to the importance of reducing toxic pest control measures in lieu of supporting gardens closer to natural growth in the wild. Ecodiversity in the garden supports healthier plant growth overall, thereby reducing predisposition to diseases, as well as inviting organisms that control pest populations based on their natural places in the food chain. Encouraging the continued success of native eco-diversity is so important that in both 2021 and 2022, the U.S. Senate resolved to declare April “National Native Plant Month” for each year respectively, and it is expected that the Senate will renew it again this year. As the detrimental effects on humans originating from pesticides come further to light, it becomes critical for commercial and residential horticulturalists to invest in safe, environmentally responsible choices.
For further information on sustainable and organic pest control measures this year, please check out this article on Treehugger, which includes several inexpensive, safer options to keep hard work pest-free.
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S.Res.109 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): A resolution designating April 2021 as "National Native Plant Month". (2021, March 25). https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-resolution/109
S.Res.570 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): A resolution designating April 2022 as "National Native Plant Month". (2022, March 30). https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-resolution/570
Text - S.269 - 118th Congress (2023-2024): Protect America's Children from Toxic Pesticides Act. (2023, February 2). https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/senate-bill/269/text