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Greener Ways to Keep Bugs at Bay

By Dr. Marisa Weiss on August 22nd, 2012 Categories: Uncategorized

Here in the Northeast United States, we’re in the thick of summer, which means all sorts of creepy, crawly, flying things are lurking outside our house waiting to bite me. Or they’re trying to get inside the house so they can crawl on me or bite me. Either way, I know I’m the intended target. While other people are leisurely sipping ice tea at backyard gatherings, I’m doing my best imitation of Elaine dancing on “Seinfeld,” trying in vain to slap away all the mosquitoes, wasps, gnats, and other assorted bugs that flock to me like moths to a flame. (I guess this means I’m hot stuff, but it’s not really much consolation.)

While not a lot of research has been done specifically on insecticides and breast cancer, many of the chemicals used in common bug killers and repellants have been classified as likely human carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) by the Silent Spring Institute. (The Silent Spring Institute began in 1994, after members of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition called for a scientifically sound investigation into elevated breast cancer rates on Cape Cod. They founded “a laboratory of their own” and named it Silent Spring Institute in tribute to Rachel Carson, whose landmark book, Silent Spring, launched the modern environmental movement. Carson died of breast cancer just 2 years after the book was published.)

Because I’d rather not use chemicals to control bugs, I’ve collected quite a few alternative ways to control pests in and outside my house. Most of my methods focus on preventing the bugs from arriving and making themselves at home in the first place – but if they do show up at the door, I choose the least toxic way to control them. Below are what I consider the worst bugs and how I manage them. Let me know if you have any other tips that I’ve missed!

Fleas and ticks: Our two dogs have gone over the rainbow bridge, but we battled fleas and ticks for many years. Flea collars may contain dichlorvos, a chemical that’s a likely human carcinogen. So instead of a collar, we made sure to vacuum daily in the spring, summer, and fall, especially the areas where our two dogs liked to sleep. We also used a flea comb on them at least once a day and dunked any fleas that came off in a mix of water and dish soap to kill them. We washed their bedding twice a week to kill any larvae and left out bowls of soapy water at night to attract and kill fleas – just make sure these bowls aren’t in an area where your pets can drink from them.

Yellowjackets and wasps: The experts say wasps, yellowjackets, and other “social” wasps (I’m not inviting them to my next barbeque!), are good because they eat other insect pests. I say I don’t want a wasp nest on my house. So each fall and spring we take a good look at our house’s exterior and patch any cracks, loose shingles and siding, or holes that have developed. We’ve also screened all our vents so the wasps and other pests can’t get in. I look under the eaves every other day in the summer; if I see a nest starting, we knock it down and burn it while it’s still very small. I also make sure to rinse out our recyclables before putting them in the bin and keep the lids on our garbage cans.

If the wasps do manage to build a nest on our house, I put out a trap baited with meat scraps or jelly. It’s fairly easy to make your own wasp trap from a plastic water/soda bottle, some tape, and a piece of string (Google “wasp trap” for instructions with pictures). Or you can buy traps at most hardware stores. Once the wasps fly in the trap, they can’t escape and will eventually die.

Ants: Like wasps, ants help the environment by eating fleas (yay!) and break up the dirt. So I focus my efforts on keeping them out of the house. The same anti-wasp home inspection we do twice each year also helps keep out ants. I also store food in glass or tin containers that seal tightly, especially anything sweet like honey, molasses, or dried fruit. If you regularly leave food out for a pet, place the food bowl in a shallower bowl (a pie tin, for example) of soapy water to keep the ants out. You can ant-proof your kitchen garbage can by smearing petroleum jelly under the lip.

If ants do invade, wipe them up with soapy water. Besides killing them, the soap also gets rid of the chemical trail that the ants leave for others to follow. If you can find the colony by following the trail of ants backward (it’s probably outside), drench the nest in soapy water. If you do decide to hire an exterminator, ask for baits and spot treatments rather than perimeter sprays or monthly treatments.

Cockroaches: Like wasps and ants, cockroaches enter a house through cracks, holes, and exterior defects that are relatively easy to repair. They like to hide and nest in warm places with plenty of water, so we’ve added checking the interior plumbing for leaks to our twice-annual home inspection list. We also recycle our newspapers, magazines, cardboard boxes, and other paper each week – piles of old paper are like a big “you’re welcome here” sign to cockroaches.

If your house has become a roach hotel, don’t use a fogger, bomb, or other sprays – they just make the roaches scatter and spread chemicals around your house. Baits – boric acid is the least toxic and is effective – can be put into roach hiding spots. Just make sure any food in the area is properly stored in a sealed container.

Mosquitoes: Mosquitoes’ annoying, itchy bites pale in comparison to the problems caused by the diseases they spread: West Nile virus, malaria, and encephalitis. So it makes sense for all of us to take steps to reduce mosquito bites, including:

  • getting rid of standing water (egg-laying haven for mosquitoes)
  • fixing screens
  • wearing long sleeves and long pants when possible (this has the added bonus of offering chemical-free sun protection!); light colored clothing is less attractive to mosquitoes than dark colored clothing
  • using a repellent such as oil of lemon eucalyptus (one of the least toxic repellents)
  • if possible, avoiding outdoor activities at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active

Don’t forget to write in with any of your favorite tips that I missed!

Dr. Marisa Weiss

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president and guiding force behind Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 8 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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