Limiting Pesticide and Herbicide Use

By Pilar Lopez-Gomez, NVSWCD Intern

Bee on Dutch clover. Credit: Creative CommonsU.S. homeowners apply about 80 million pounds of pesticides to lawns each year, using 10 times more pesticides per acre on lawns than farmers do on crops, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To understand how pesticide became a household item and industry, white Dutch clover offers an illustrative example.

White Dutch clover was known as “white man’s foot” among Native Americans for the way it flourished along rural paths and roads wherever European colonists went. At one point it was included in lawn seed mixes for its ability to fix nitrogen. In the last century, however, views changed and white Dutch clover was branded as a weed for attracting honeybees.

This shift opened up a market for synthetic chemical plant-growth regulators. Product manufacturers for DDT, Killex and 2,4-D began advertising in magazines like Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies Home Journal during the late 1940s with promises to easily remove unwanted weeds like the white Dutch clover from lawns and gardens.

As honeybees are now facing increasing threats from colony collapse disorder, many people are shifting perspective again. They are welcoming pollinator-friendly plants into their gardens and limiting pesticide and herbicide use in the yard.

U.S. Pesticide Consumption

Pesticide is a general term that encompasses herbicide, insecticide, fungicide and others. In the past 60 years, overall pesticide use has increased almost 50-fold from 2.3 million tons of pesticides used annually in 1950 to 5.1 billion today, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates. The United States accounts for roughly 21% of the total worldwide pesticide use. The 80 million pounds of pesticides applied on lawns in the above statistic averages to about 4.5 pounds of pesticides per person per year. The primary problem encountered when homeowners use pesticides is over-application. Fortunately, there are easy steps that homeowners can take to ensure effective pesticide results without over-application.

Using Pesticides Safely and Effectively

Read the Label First. Credit: Environmental Protection AgencyIf pesticides must be used, it is important to use them correctly. First, choose the right pesticide product for the job. Do not be afraid to do a little research to learn exactly what the problem pest is, and read and compare product labels. Be sure to choose the least toxic pesticide that can get the job done.

It can be tempting to skip the product label, but that is exactly how most over-application problems start. Take a few minutes to read the instructions. Labels will help you determine how much product to apply, how to protect your health when applying the pesticide and how to safely store and dispose of it.

Improper pesticide storage or disposal can be hazardous to humans and the environment. Plan ahead and only purchase the amount of pesticide you will need. Products should always be stored in their original containers, complete with directions, and out of reach of children. If it is necessary to dispose of it, take the containers to a local household hazardous waste facility, typically at landfill or transfer station sites.

Using more pesticides than is needed gives no additional benefits. Spraying extra pesticide is ineffective and dangerous.

Safety Standards

To ensure the safety of individuals applying pesticides, EPA has strignent standards to manage the level of toxicity in products. When buying a pesticide, look for the EPA registration number on the back panel of the package near the application directions. This number indicates that the health and environmental impacts of the pesticide have been reviewed. The registration of a product may be verified by searching the online database of EPA’s Pesticide Product Label System

Risks of Pesticide Over-Application

Over-application of pesticides can create unnecessary risks to your family, pets and natural resources. When pesticides are applied incorrectly on a windy day, they can travel through the air and residues can be absorbed through the skin and eyes or inhaled. After it rains, over-applied pesticides run off into storm drains and enter streams and rivers, poisoning fish and contaminating groundwater.

Children can be disproportionately affected by over-application of pesticides because of their smaller stature, higher metabolisms and because they tend to play in areas treated by pesticides. Pets can be exposed when rolling around on treated grass and can transfer this exposure to humans.

Pesticide Alternatives

Lawn with 'Safe to Play On' sign. Credit: American Public Information on the EnvironmentIntegrated pest management is a holistic approach to pest control, maximizing use of biological and mechanical controls: beneficial insects such as praying mantis or ladybugs, weeding, physically removing pests by hand, and planting companion plants that repel pests or disease-resistant varieties.

Integrated pest management accepts a certain base level of insect activity and uses information about the lifecycle of pests and their interactions with the surrounding environment to manage them while balancing economic and ecological aspects. Pesticides are used only when absolutely necessary, and low-toxic version are chosen.

How can homeowners use integrated pest management techniques? Observe your landscape regularly for early detection. Maintain a healthy, fertile soil by adding organic matter. Remove outdoor hiding places that attract pests, take care of plants to keep them healthy, remove breeding grounds such as pet droppings or stagnant water and alternate vegetable garden planting plans. By following these steps, it can be easy to minimize pesticide use while detecting and halting pest problems safely and effectively.

For More Information

To learn more about Integrated Pest Management and other pesticide information, see: Controlling Pests - You and Your Land.

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