[Posted July 30, 2021]
Opinion contributed by Rich Hatfield, a resident of the Bridlemile Neighborhood and a senior conservation biologist with a conservation nonprofit in Portland.
Before I begin, I’ll introduce myself so that you can understand where I’m coming from. I'm a conservation biologist. I work for a conservation non-profit here in Portland where my job is to protect the 90% of animal biodiversity on the planet—these are the invertebrates (think bees, other insects, mussels, crustaceans, etc).
The vast majority of invertebrates are beneficial, helping with nutrient cycling, filtering clean water, decomposition, pollination, and serving as the base of the food chain for much of the world's other animals. Most of my personal work focuses on the conservation of native bees.
And here is the reason that I’m writing: I recently got a visit from a pest control company trying to sell me their services and offering that I could get a "deal" because their trucks were going to be in the neighborhood. I politely explained the nature of my job, and that I was against pest control measures that use insecticides since so many beneficial insects and spiders are harmed in the process. The representative told me something like: Don't worry, I'm an environmentalist too, we don't use toxic chemicals and our company is approved by the EPA. (The EPA does not approve pest control companies, but this is what the agent said to me. However, if the agent meant that the EPA approves all of the products that they use, this is not surprising as the EPA approves all pesticides that can be used in the U.S. I'm sorry to say that this does not make them safe or non-toxic.) I asked the agent for a product list, and they told me to check the website. So I did.
On the company’s website, I found that they list approximately 50 products that they might use. Among the list of active ingredients (chemicals) in these products that are (probably right now) being applied to our neighborhood:
Fipronil: Fipronil is classed as a WHO (World Health Organization) Class II moderately hazardous pesticide. According to the Pesticide Properties Database Fipronil is highly toxic to humans and may bio-accumulate. It is considered a neurotoxicant and both an eye and skin irritant. Fipronil is also highly toxic to mammals, birds and bees but slightly less so to fish, aquatic invertebrates, aquatic plants and earthworms.
Dinotefuran: Dinotefuran is a highly toxic neonicotinoid insecticide. It was the chemical implicated in the Wilsonville bee kill that happened several years ago. I recently published a paper documenting the effects that this chemical had on bumble bee populations during that event. In short, it was significant.
Pyrethroids: Pyrethroids, generally, are highly toxic to bees and almost all insects, and also to other invertebrates, as well as fish and aquatic organisms. Oftentimes companies tout their use of “safe” chemicals derived from natural ingredients found in chrysanthemum flowers (pyrethrins). But, pyrethroids, the compound normally used in pesticide application, are synthetic (developed in a laboratory to work similarly to pyrethrins), and are considered highly toxic to invertebrates, as noted above.
It may be true that these chemicals pose generally low risk to human life (at least at the short-term duration that these chemicals have been studied; studies on longer term effects are sorely lacking). However, they do pose a significant risk to the majority of organisms that we share our neighborhood with (again, invertebrates represent more than 90% of animal life). The fact that these companies can go door-to-door and mislead the public by preying on our fears (of pests) and then feeding misinformation to potential customers is really disturbing to me. I know that we all want to do the right thing for our homes, our families, and the environment, and that these decisions are complicated. No one wants a house invaded with ants, or a yard that is getting dug up by rodents (though rodent holes do make important bumble bee nesting habitat!).
I'm certainly not suggesting you invite sugar ants into your pantry for the summer. But, if we want our kids to grow up in a neighborhood that has woods and streams worth exploring (and that are not full of toxic chemicals that could potentially cause them direct harm, like fipronil), we need to move away from quick-fix pesticide options. Paying a company to get rid of the pests that are disrupting your home life may seem like an easy choice, but there are real downstream effects that are being multiplied in neighborhoods across the country and that have a profound effect on biodiversity and on human health. Since insects are often the base of a food chain, reducing the number of insects will ultimately affect all other animals, including songbirds and mammals. Taking the time to find the root of the problem will be much more effective for you and our neighborhood/city/planet. This work may not be easy, but we’ll all be better off if we take the time to do it right. A few suggestions that may help:
Find where ants or other pests are getting into your home (following their trails, both inside and out, is a great way to start), and seal entrance holes. This is not easy work, but I didn't say it would be easy. Getting at the root causes of pest issues (i.e., keeping a tidy home and fixing leaky faucets that attract thirsty ants) is the key to solving them. And prevention is a lot easier and safer than chemicals. If prevention doesn't work, borax-based solutions work pretty well for sugar ants. If home concoctions have not worked for you, you can try Terro. It is an over-the-counter, borax-based ant bait. Keep in mind this will be a temporary solution until the next group of ants find how to enter your home.
Create some diversity in your yard. You don't have to get rid of your lawn, but lawn doesn't really provide habitat for any native animals, so you're inviting pests if that is the kind of habitat you are cultivating (especially if you water it).
Think in systems. If you have a pest in your yard, it is likely because some component of the system is missing. A chemical is not the solution, and will just kick the can down the road (or to your neighbor). Again, this is not easy, but there are no easy solutions. Oregon State University Extension Service is a great place to go with any questions you might have.
Using insecticides to solve problems also kills beneficial insects that will otherwise do the biocontrol (pest control) work for you.
We need to redefine what beauty looks like. Beautiful can include brown spots and leaf cuts if you can learn to appreciate some of the amazing creatures that are making them happen. Our yards and gardens are habitats for life, not just pretty. We need them to be functional ecosystems, and this is beautiful! Again, this is not easy, but it sure can be fun—certainly more fun than killing animals with chemicals, right?
If all else fails and human health or property are at risk, pesticides can be used as a last resort. The most important thing here is to use a targeted approach and to follow the label directions: find a product that is targeted directly toward the pest (do not use broad spectrum or systemic pesticides), and use the product at the lowest effective dose, in as small an area as possible.
If you use a pest control company, ask for their product list. The active ingredients will be more important than the product name. These lists can be difficult to interpret, but there are resources to help. The Pesticide Properties Database is a great place to start.
I’m writing this here as a way to reach as many people as I can. Unfortunately, I don’t have the resources to follow door-to-door salespersons to speak with all of you after they get there (or ESP powers to get there before they arrive). But the take-home here is that getting pesticides sprayed on a schedule, or prophylactically (when there is no clear indication of health hazard or property damage) will not benefit you, your property, or our neighborhoods, but does risk wiping out biodiversity and endangering our pets and children. I don’t pretend to know all of the answers to these complicated questions, but working together as a community to solve them instead of seeking the quick fix will leave us all better informed to create the kind of neighborhood that will support happy healthy people, and an environment that we can be proud of.
What are your tips on keeping pests at bay? Let us know.