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Keeping the familia safe while ridding cucarachas & weeds calls for better choices in household chemicals

By Nicole Hernández Hammer

As a child, I remember how happy my mother was when our cousin Panchito, a pest-control worker, would stop by our house and spray the house and yard for free. He’d come often and we’d walk with him and chat as he targeted all the usual bug-hiding places, and then some for good measure.

After dowsing all corners in generous doses of pesticides, he’d share merienda with us, his tall silver tank of chemicals set aside in the kitchen corner. I remember these times because I love my family and treasure the time I share with them. Unfortunately, we trusted that the chemicals we allowed into our home were safe.

As I have learned more about the damage that pesticides can cause on human health and the environment, I’ve made an effort to make better choices about these chemicals.

I avoid the use of toxic pesticides in my home and I try to buy organic foods. Research indicates that many commonly used pesticides are carcinogenic, damaging to the nervous system and can cause reproductive, immune and endocrine dysfunction.

When we buy organic foods, we are not only limiting the amount of pesticides we consume, but we also support agriculture that reduces the exposure of harmful chemicals on farm workers. I’ve noticed that “going organic” is a growing trend in the city where I live, but at the same time, there seems to be a lack of understanding about the use of pesticides in our homes and outdoor spaces.

How smart is it to spend precious dollars for food that isn’t laden with toxic pesticides if we then spray some of the same poisons in our homes, schools, offices and communities?

I live in a Home Owners Association community and the common areas are frequently sprayed with pesticides. The other day, my family and I were on our way out of our house with our bags of organic-packed lunches in hand and were accidently hit by a mist of pesticides being applied to the hedges near our front door.

After washing off the spray, I tracked down the company who sprays in my neighborhood and got the details about what they use (imidacloprid and bifenthrin) which I then sent on to the folks at Beyond Pesticides. This is what they told me:

In reviewing the human health effects of these chemicals, the European Food Safety Authority singled out imidacloprid as a nervous system toxicant, with particular concerns for the development of children’s neurons and brain structure… “.

The esteemed American Academy of Pediatrics released a landmark report on Pesticide Exposure in Children, noting that ‘Children encounter pesticides daily and have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity. Acute poisoning risks are clear, and understanding of chronic health implications from both acute and chronic exposure are emerging’ … According to EPA, there have been a total of 1,403 incidents involving bifenthrin reported between 1998 and 2009.

Bifenthrin, according to one study, can increase the risk for and frequency of inflammatory responses and diseases such as asthma. The United States has taken no such action to rein in the use of these chemicals, despite these findings from EFSA. We hope you will help educate members of your community about the potential hazards these chemicals can cause to both children and wildlife.”

I read further about how these chemicals don’t just disappear into the ether. They add up, mix with other chemicals, sometimes becoming more toxic, and they end up in our air, water and food.

I’m now in the process of trying to educate my community about choosing nontoxic indoor and outdoor pesticide alternatives. While mine was a relatively minor incident, many of the people who work in pest control and agriculture experience very high levels of exposure that can have immediate and devastating effects on their health and the health of their families.

I can’t help but feel discouraged when I go to a park, or the grocery store and see those little yard signs with a picture of a child and a dog with a line crossed through it that reads KEEP OFF. At what point will we realize that we need to stop poisoning ourselves and our environment.

Pesticide-free food, air, land and water is something that should not be reserved only for the privileged few who can afford to buy organic or design their own pesticide-free surroundings.

We all have a right to live in an environment that contributes to our health not deteriorates it. For more information and for tips on how you can speak out against pesticides check out: The Healthy Farm: A Vision for U.S. Agriculture and Beyond Pesticides: Tools for Change.

Nicole Hernández Hammer is a sea level researcher and the assistant director for climate change research at the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at FAU. She is also a consultant for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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