According to a study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) the pesticides used to control the insects that attack our lawns, trees, and houses or cause itchy and painful bites can be far more dangerous to humans than the insects themselves.
The simple fact is that most Americans have developed a loathing for insects that is not prevalent in most other countries where insects are not only tolerated but may even be valued as a high-protein food source.
What we fail to realize is that insects so far outnumber humans that all of the ants in the world actually weigh more than all of the humans on the planet. Moreover, for every insect that is killed, there are literally millions to take its place. Finally, the wholesale use of pesticides to kill insects that bother us also leads to the indiscriminate killing of millions of insects that are beneficial to us and critical to the environment.
In some cases, the use of chemical pesticides can be justified to the extent they are needed to prevent the spread of serious illnesses including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever carried by infected ticks, and West Nile Virus and eastern equine encephalitis carried by infected mosquitoes.
Although such diseases are cause for concern in the U.S., other parts of the world with more tropical climates face more pressing problems of insect spread disease including epidemics of Malaria and Dengue Fever.
In America, pesticides are all too often used for manicuring lawns and for ensuring good produce than for fighting insect-born illness.
Pesticides used in the U.S. include chemical agents and biopesticides. Following the removal of the extremely dangerous organochlorine pesticides such as DDT and chlordane from the market, the most widely used insecticides have been the 40-plus members of the organophosphate class.
These chemicals are used in agriculture, veterinary medicine, and in homes and gardens; some were also used as chemical weapons in World War II and can cause both acute and subacute toxicity.
They can be absorbed by inhalation, ingestion, and through skin penetration, and can cause symptoms that include headache, hypersecretion, muscle twitching, nausea, diarrhea respiratory depression, seizures, and loss of consciousness.
Incidents of pesticide poisoning have been found to occur mostly near farms and schools. Walter A. Alarcon, M.D., and colleagues from NIOSH and other federal and state health agencies reported in the July 27, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that 69% were tied to the use of bug-killers at school and 31% were linked to pesticide drift from neighboring farmlands.
A less dangerous pesticide that people are often exposed to is N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (the insect-repellent DEET) which is usually the active ingredient in over-the-counter products for adults and children.
DEET in normal levels (10% to 35%) is sufficient in most instances and usually does not present a hazard. It is considered to be safe by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when kept at those levels.
Higher concentrations should be reserved for situations in which insect infestation is high and high temperatures and humidity may limit repellent efficacy.
DEET especially in high concentrations or with frequent use can cause skin rashes or irritation in rare cases. DEET can be toxic if swallowed and should not be applied to broken skin or open wounds. Adverse neurological effects have been reported with massive exposure and chronic use.
For those who want a natural alternative to bug spray, lemon eucalyptus provides protection against mosquitoes equal to about 10% DEET.
Health experts also believe there are other alternatives to the wide-spread use of pesticides including reducing infestations by using non-toxic methods, by limiting the use of pesticides to last resort situations, and by utilizing the least toxic chemicals that are effective.