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Marin IJ Articles

Pests? Think before you spray

  • Nanette Londeree
  • Think before you spray. It sounds good, and makes sense relative to using pesticides. But what does it really mean?

    In a nutshell, it means that when you have a pest problem, understand what you’re trying to manage before you take action. Know what the pest is, determine how much damage you can tolerate from the pest, then look at treatment options starting with the least-toxic method.

    Recently, I had a rather creepy experience applying the “Think before you spray” concept. Near our garbage can I noticed fat little worm-like bugs wriggling on the floor. I recognized the creatures as house fly larvae (aka maggots), and, due to the “yuck factor” immediately reached for a can of insect spray (albeit an “environmental friendly” form) to kill off these squirming beasts. I sprayed; they kept moving. I sprayed some more; they kept moving. I tried another type of spray. They kept on moving. I then stopped and went to the internet to find out how to eliminate them — thinking before I did any more treatment. I’d assumed (incorrectly) that any type of contact insecticide would wipe out these creepy crawlers.

    The UC Integrated Pest Management (IPM) website ipm.ucanr.edu, my go-to resource for pest information, indicated that many insecticides are not effective in killing maggots and the ones I had available certainly weren’t. Following the website recommendations, I cleaned up the area with a bleach and water solution, which did the trick. I could have saved time and effort if I’d stopped to think before I sprayed.

    My behavior in this instance is pretty typical — we react to a perceived pest without considering our options, and in doing so, overuse pesticides. There are no national programs that estimate annual pesticide use, either by quantities used or dollars spent so it’s difficult to get firm information. The National Institute of Health estimated in 2009 (the most recent data available) that more than 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. each year to protect food and related products, for public health programs, commercial applications, and for home lawn and garden use. A recently published U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report found that in 2012, six of the top 10 active ingredients used in the home and garden sector were herbicides and four were insecticides. Next time you visit a home improvement center or local nursery, check out the shelves of pesticides — the volume and diversity is enormous. With this vast array of products, it can be difficult to choose the right product to treat your pest problem without “thinking before you spray.”

    The county of Marin has been a leader in reducing the use of pesticides in the parks and public spaces it maintains, and particularly, the herbicide glyphosate, a material regularly used by homeowners. In response to community interest to decrease overall pesticide use and recognizing the environmental and public health benefits of doing so, the Marin County Board of Supervisors committed $100,000 to fund a two-year public education and outreach campaign to reduce the use of pesticides in Marin. With an additional $90,000 for campaign development support obtained as part of an EPA-funded grant, the Marin Pesticide Reduction Coalition, a collaborative, community-driven project in Marin County, was formed in 2016 with the charter to raise awareness about pesticide use and provide Marin residents with alternatives. The coalition, under the name Yard Smart Marin, launched the “Think Before You Spray” campaign this spring with a focus on weed control without the use of herbicides.

    So, what can you do to reduce your use of pesticides? Understand what you’re trying to manage before taking action, know what the pest is, determine how much damage you can tolerate and evaluate treatment options starting with the least toxic method. By doing so, you’ll join the “Think before you spray” community. For more information, go to the Yard Smart Marin website at yardsmartmarin.org.