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Avoiding Pesticides

The term pesticides refers to a wide variety of chemical products, including herbicides, which are used to control weeds; insecticides, used to control insects; termiticides, used to control termites; rodenticides, used to control mice and rats; and fungicides, used to control fungus.

Pesticides are among the most widely used chemicals in the world and among the most hazardous to human health. They cause serious acute and chronic health effects.

A report published by the David Suzuki Foundation, in 2007, found that every year, 6,000 Canadians suffer acute poisoning from pesticides. Almost half of those are children under the age of six. (It should be noted that these numbers reflect only reported cases; if unreported and misdiagnosed cases were included, the number would almost certainly be significantly higher).

In addition, pesticides cause many more to suffer chronic health problems, including headaches, neurological problems, learning problems, nerve damage, kidney damage, infertility and other reproductive problems. Research also suggests that pesticides can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, soft tissue sarcomas, brain tumours and other cancers.

Ways to Avoid Pesticides

  • Eat organic foods.
  • If you are not able to buy organic foods (because they tend to be more expensive or they are not readily available):
    • Buy local produce when in season. Eating food grown close to home is healthier for the planet and pesticide regulations in Canada are more stringent than in some other countries.
    • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to avoid eating the same type that may have a higher level of residue.
    • Throw away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables, such as lettuce and cabbage.
    • Wash fruits and vegetables in warm water, or a mixture of water and baking soda, and scrub with a brush. Do not peel because the vitamins gained by leaving the peel on outweigh the health risks from pesticides.
    • Trim the fat and skin from meat and fish because some pesticide residues tend to concentrate in animal fat.
  • Buy organic fibres. Cotton uses more insecticides than any other crop.
  • Don’t use chemical pesticides in your home. Instead, identify where the insects are getting in and fill the cracks; store foods in airtight containers, and keep your home crumb-free and clean. If you require the services of a pest control company, hire a company that uses alternative products. (For more information on Dealing with Pests at Home, visit the Pesticide Action Network website.)
  • Avoid using anti-bacterials that contain pesticides. Use soap and water instead.
  • Rid the buildings where you work and live of pesticides. Talk to building management and landlords about using less toxic alternatives.
  • Use non-toxic or less toxic alternatives to pesticides when caring for your lawn and garden.
  • Join or start a group to ban pesticides from your municipality.
  • If you have pesticides and pesticide containers you want to dispose of, be sure to dispose of them in an environmentally responsible way. Never burn or pour pesticides down the drain. Do not re-use empty containers. Contact your city officials to find out how to dispose of hazardous waste.

Alternatives to Using Pesticides Outdoors

Given the serious hazards of pesticides to human health and to the environment, a growing number of governments, including Ontario and Quebec and many municipalities, are reducing or banning the cosmetic use of pesticides, and organic gardening is becoming increasingly popular.

Lawn Care

When caring for your own lawn, try the following:

  • Mow High. Grass doesn't drink its food through its roots; it manufactures its food in its leaves – the green parts. Grass cut an inch high is as healthy as you would be on one meal a week. Two inches (5 cm) is the absolute minimum for healthy grass, three inches (8 cm) is best. Long grass shades its roots to keep them cool, and shades out weeds so they find it harder to grow.
  • Water Deeply and Seldom. Allow the sprinkler to soak the grass. Bluegrass lawns need about one inch of water once a week. (Fescues and perennial ryegrasses need only about half that much.) Put a small can on the lawn before turning the sprinkler on to measure watering accurately. Frequent light sprinklings encourage shallow weak roots.
  • Mulch Clippings. Mow often enough that no more than one third of the leaf length is removed at one time, and leave the clippings in the grass. This reduces the need for fertilizer by 30 percent.
  • Aerate and Overseed. Grass roots must breathe air to work properly. Grass growing in soil packed tight as concrete is as healthy as you would be with your head in a plastic bag. That is also a perfect environment for dandelions. Rent a small aerator once each year, or ask an organic lawn care business to do it. June is best, when there are the fewest weed seeds blowing around. Then rake it all smooth, overseed with a bit of high-quality grass seed, and water it. A dense lawn will crowd out weeds.
  • Fertilize in Fall. Use a slow-release granular fertilizer once a year. Never over-fertilize – too much fertilizer weakens grass. Organic fertilizers are best – they last the whole year and prevent weak green growth that bugs love to eat.
  • Enjoy It! Only the weeds and bugs that threaten a lawn's health or ours really need to be removed. A lawn is healthier when several kinds of grass cooperate to deal with differing conditions around your home. And 90 percent of insects around your home help your lawn grow.


You can have a beautiful garden without using pesticides. There are many products available that offer natural alternatives to chemical pesticides. It is still important to follow the manufacturer’s directions closely. Products that require spraying or dusting should only be used if absolutely necessary.

Also note that some products are harmful to beneficial insects. Because beneficial insects often need the harmful ones as a food supply, it is better to tolerate small numbers of them than to destroy them all. Before treating the garden, collect of few of these in a small container and release them again after the treatment is done.

Alternative products include:

Insecticidal Soap (liquid)

  • Used to control aphids, earwigs, mealy bugs, mites sawfly larvae, white flies and others
  • Harmless to beneficial insects

Do not use household detergent for this purpose.

Organic Insect Killer (liquid)

  • Controls most species of caterpillars
  • Harmless to beneficial insects

Pyrethrins Plus Piperonol Butoxide (liquid)

  • Controls flea beetles, leafhoppers, Colorado potato beetles, rose chafers and tarnished plant bugs
  • Harmful to beneficial insects. Breaks down rapidly after application

Rotenone (spray or dust)

  • Controls Colorado potato beetles, corn borers, cucumber beetles, currant and raspberry sawflies, raspberry fruit worms, flea beetles and leafhoppers
  • Harmful to beneficial insects and fish. Breaks down rapidly after application

Because pyrethrins and Rotenone kill many beneficial insects, they should only be used to control severe insect infestations. Spot treatments, directly on harmful insects, will limit the fatal effect to the beneficial insects.

Dio Slug Killer (dust)

  • Attracts and kills slugs and earwigs
  • Harmless to beneficial insects and to dogs. (It’s important to note that other types of slug killers, which contain metaldehyde bait, are not safe for dogs.)

For resources on how to deal with specific pests in your yard and garden without using pesticides, click here.



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