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Marin IJ Articles

Pesticides aren’t all bad

  • Nanette Londeree
  • “There’s no good bug but a dead bug” or so the makers of pest control products have claimed.

    For just about every home and garden pest, there’s likely a product available to control or eliminate it. Contrary to popular thinking, pesticides aren’t all bad. You probably use them regularly without hesitation — household bleach, vinegar, dishwashing soap and baking soda are common household items that can be effective pesticides when used appropriately. The key is to know the pest you’re dealing with, what you’re using to manage it and then, using it correctly.

    The term pesticide, coined in 1939 from the English word pest, and the Latin word cide, for killing, is any material used to control, prevent, kill, suppress or repel pests. There are many types, each focused on the group of pests they are designed to control. Common ones include insecticides (insects), fungicides (fungi that cause diseases in plants, animals and people), molluscicides (snails and slugs), rodenticides (mice, rats and other rodents) and herbicides (weeds and other unwanted plants).

    Pesticides can be derived from naturally occurring or man-made materials and produced from organic or inorganic materials. There’s a wide variety of formats — ready-to-use liquids, concentrates, sprays, foggers, powders, granules and dusts, baits and more. They’re generally mixtures of one or more active ingredients, the component that kills or controls the target pest, and other ingredients that may make the product more effective or convenient to use.


    Contact pesticides kill a pest when it touches its surface; a contact spray will wipe out ants on the spot. Systemic materials circulate throughout the pest’s host; when the pest feeds on the host, it ingests enough pesticide to be lethal. Many preventive flea treatments for dogs and cats utilize a systemic approach. Pesticides that kill only a few closely related organisms are considered selective or narrow range while non-selective or broad-range products are generally fatal to anything they contact — the bad guys and good guys. The non-selective herbicide glyphosate will destroy any plant it contacts, where a selective product for controlling crabgrass won’t have an effect on other types of plants.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and individual states register or license pesticides for use in the United States. The EPA uses “signal words” to identify the level of toxicity of a product; toxicity is the ability of a pesticide to injure a living organism, and by design, all pesticides are toxic to some organisms. The signal words danger, warning or caution describe the short-term toxicity of the product, with danger being the most toxic and caution the lowest. The EPA requires manufacturers of commercially available pesticides to have the signal works printed on the front panel of the label, in all capital letters.


    Read the label. The pesticide label is the information printed on, attached to, or provided with the pesticide container; it is a legal document that provides directions on how to mix, apply, store and dispose of pesticide products. In addition to the trade or brand name and active ingredients, you’ll find information on the types of plants or sites where the pesticide can be used, targeted pests, how much to use, how and when to apply, potential hazards to people, animals or the environment, emergency and first aid measures and the proper methods of storage and disposal.

    If you choose to use a pesticide, identify the pest you want to control, and confirm it is listed on the label of product you select. Read the label before buying, before mixing and using, and before storing or disposing of the pesticide. The information is there to help you achieve maximum pest control benefits, with minimum risk. Used appropriately, pesticides can be an important tool to help protect your plants and home against damage.