Integrated Pest Management
Reducing the populations of cockroaches, mice, and rats by using the right pest control method can reduce the concentration of allergens in the home, delivering real health benefits to homeowners and renters.
Cockroaches. Mice. Rats. These are just three of the pests that can invade a home or apartment. Homeowners and renters detest them because they’re messy, leaving behind droppings, fur, and other shed body parts. They eat and contaminate our food, and they can do serious damage to walls,woodwork, wiring, furniture, and carpeting. These pests also pose significant threats to human health.
Mice and rats carry fleas and ticks, which can spread disease, and both rodents produce persistent allergens that can cause health problems (see “Mouse Allergen in Homes”). Cockroaches also produce potent allergens; their wastes and dead roaches can trigger asthma attacks, especially in children. Getting rid of these pests can deliver real health benefits to homeowners and renters, but using the wrong pest control methods can counteract these benefits and can cause more health problems than it solves.
A Return to Proven Methods
Beginning post–World War II, pesticides were aggressively marketed to eliminate indoor pest problems. These pesticides did the job they were intended to do—kill pests. But research now shows that many of these chemicals are also highly toxic to humans.The EPA recently banned two of the most common pesticides for indoor use against pests—chlorpyrifos and diazinon. Both chemicals were found to be acutely toxic to children and pets, and researchers implicated both of these chemicals in low birth weights among infants whose mothers used the pesticides for cockroach control.
Using bug bombs and roach sprays can also pose risks, and it will not eliminate the pest problem. These products kill only a few individual pests, scattering the rest temporarily. Sprays and bombs disperse poison throughout the home, leaving toxic residues on carpets, curtains, furniture, blankets, and stuffed toys. These toxins can also attach to house dust, which is easily ingested and inhaled.
Such health risks have prompted a demand for lower-risk approaches to prevent and control pest infestations. Many of these approaches are not new. Rather, they are proven, commonsense measures, many of which were in use before the widespread introduction of pesticides.
Integrated pest management is one such approach. Integrated pest management, or IPM, prevents and corrects pest problems by eliminating the resources pests need to survive in the indoor environment, and by removing existing pests from the home.
An Ounce of Prevention
Home Energy readers are familiar with the energy benefits of a tight house with controlled ventilation. It’s not just air you want to keep out. One of the keys to effective IPM is prevention—designing, building, repairing, and maintaining houses to keep pests from getting in in the first place. In addition, possible sources of food,water, and shelter need to be eliminated, in order to make a home inhospitable to pests.While prevention approaches vary for different species, there are some general guidelines that will keep most pests at bay.
In existing homes, it is critical to plug and caulk holes, cracks, and crevices; patch holes in window and door screens; and eliminate other points where pests can enter. Mice can squeeze through an opening the size of a dime, and roaches can squeeze through even smaller spaces. It’s also essential to eliminate moisture by repairing leaks in the plumbing and maintaining good drainage. Pests thrive in moist conditions—even in damp walls and floors. Proper landscape maintenance techniques that keep shrubs and plants from touching the house can significantly reduce travel routes along which pests may move indoors and can also limit the proximity to the home of outdoor breeding areas.
The design and construction of new homes and apartment complexes offers a great opportunity to practice IPM. Simple weatherization practices can seal potential entry points for pests. Adequate ventilation and moisture control systems can eliminate sources of water that pests need. Proper plumbing, roofing, and drainage in new homes can also eliminate excessive moisture. Efficient, reliable HVAC systems can eliminate overly warm pockets where pests, especially roaches, like to congregate and breed.
Indoor design is also an essential part of an IPM strategy. Adequate storage that is effectively separated from the living space can provide residents with a place to put empty boxes and other clutter that would attract pests if it were stored in closets or cupboards. Smooth, cleanable surfaces are also important. Carpeting should be limited, if it is used at all. Carpeting can trap food and moisture, both of which attract pests, and the small gap between the baseboard and the carpet can be an attractive travel route for cockroaches.
If You Need That Pound of Cure
If pests are already present in a home, IPM is an effective means of control. IPM includes short-term measures to eliminate the infestation and interventions to prevent pests from returning. The process begins with an assessment of the house or apartment complex. It is important to determine which pests are getting in, how they are getting in, where and how they are traveling within the home, and where pest infestations are the heaviest.
Next, IPM uses periodic monitoring to determine the extent of infestation, and it tracks the movement and populations of pests throughout the entire management process. For example, nontoxic sticky traps can be used to monitor roach populations and movement. If the traps continue to pick up a large number of roaches after control measures begin, it’s a signal to adjust the control measures being used.
Once the assessment is complete and a monitoring system is in place, IPM provides important tools to reduce or eliminate pests and to prevent further invasions. First, IPM uses physical measures to make the home less hospitable to existing pest populations:
• Seal points of entry.
• Thoroughly clean kitchen and bathroom areas, particularly under and behind refrigerators and ovens and between ovens and walls.
• Store food in tightly sealed containers or in the fridge.
• Eliminate clutter.
• Fix leaks and correct drainage problems.
If pests persist after physical measures have been taken, IPM uses limited and targeted applications of low-toxicity chemicals. These chemicals can be successfully used against pests that pose a risk to human health.
Boric acid (a powder) is particularly effective against German and American cockroaches. Though it is a registered pesticide, boric acid is far less toxic than traditional roach sprays.Take care to ensure that boric acid is spread into all problem areas, including cracks and holes before they are sealed. Diatomaceous earth (silicon dioxide), a natural substance that dehydrates insects, is also useful against roaches.Tamper-proof baits and gels can be used to disrupt roach reproduction. Sticky monitoring traps can be used to help control small roach infestations.
Mice and rats can be controlled with live traps, which don’t use any chemicals and allow occupants to release the animals if they don’t wish to kill them. For occupants who don’t mind killing rodents, snap traps are another nontoxic option. Glue traps have also been used for mouse control, but these traps cause a slow, painful, inhumane death.
For serious or persistent mouse or rat infestations, however, some poisons may be needed. Use poisoned baits known as rodenticides, that are secured in special bait boxes.These metal boxes allow the mice or rats to enter and eat the poisoned bait while sealing out children and pets. This method prevents accidental poisonings. It also prevents the dispersal of rodenticides throughout the entire housing unit, as would occur if sprays were used or if baiting was done indiscriminately.The rodenticides used today are not nearly as toxic to humans as the rat poisons that were used in the past, such as strychnine. (For more examples of the least toxic pesticides, see “When Only Chemicals Will Do”.)
In using chemicals of any kind, follow these guidelines:
• Use chemicals only when necessary.
• Use the least toxic chemical that will do the job.
• Apply low-volatility chemicals, so as not to contaminate household air and dust.
• Use a chemical that is targeted to the pest that you are trying to eliminate.
• Use the smallest amount of chemical necessary to eliminate the infestation.
• Keep all chemicals away from children and pets. Remember that many of these chemicals are pesticides. They are poisons and should be treated as such.
• Use only chemicals that have an effective antidote in case of accidental ingestion. Be sure that you know what the antidote is.
When you use chemicals, follow the instructions on the label. It is better to allow a trained IPM professional to handle them. (Depending on local and state laws, some or all pesticides—even low-toxicity pesticides—can be used only by trained personnel.)
The Benefits are Multiple
IPM eliminates pest populations that produce and carry allergens.This reduces the risk of adverse reactions and asthma attacks. IPM also reduces the need for chemicals and eliminates the need for high-toxicity pesticides. This protects children and pets from accidental poisoning and reduces the risk of dangerous reactions in asthmatics. IPM seals openings where pests can enter; this increases energy savings while keeping pests out. IPM fixes leaks and drainage problems; this not only discourages pests but also reduces indoor moisture and prevents mold growth in walls, ceilings, and carpets, eliminating another source of asthma attacks. Limiting indoor moisture to prevent pests can also keep old lead paint from peeling and flaking; this helps to prevent childhood lead poisoning. Finally, IPM eliminates clutter. Keeping homes free of clutter—a favorite hiding place for pests—can also prevent injuries and reduce the presence of dust mites.
Pests in the home can be a daunting challenge, but this challenge is not insurmountable. IPM works, as long as the home is structurally sound and is kept clean, dry, and properly repaired. While IPM cannot always eliminate the need for chemicals, it is far more effective than high-toxicity pest control methods in improving occupant health. It does so by reducing pest populations and their associated allergens—and by protecting occupants from dangerous pesticides.
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