Insects are a universal problem. Scientists say that millions of species exist across the globe, and while they play a critical role in their ecosystems, insects are also prone to destroying plants and bothering humans.
Insecticides — pesticides that are specifically formulated to repel and/or kill insects — can be highly effective at controlling harmful insect activity. Used improperly, they can cause harm to other living things too. It's important to consider all the potential effects before using insecticide inside or outside your home.
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Potential Health Effects of Insecticides
Because insects are such a broad group that includes so many wildly different organisms, there's no one product that safely and effectively kills all insects. There are more than a dozen general types of insecticides, which are categorized by chemical makeup. They work in different ways and are capable of creating a range of symptoms in people who experience unsafe exposure to these chemicals. Unsafe exposure may include ingesting an insecticide or having prolonged daily exposure to insecticides as part of a job. People using insecticides sparingly at home generally don't need to worry about overexposure.
Organophosphates and carbamates are some of the most common types of insecticides, which work by inhibiting an enzyme called cholinesterase and disrupting the nervous system. This effect can happen in people and mammals as well as insects. Too much exposure to organophosphates or carbamates can cause symptoms including headaches, nausea, or diarrhea, and pulmonary edema or loss of consciousness may occur in serious cases. With pyrethroid insecticides — another common type that can be used to control a variety of insects both indoors and outdoors — symptoms of overexposure include abnormal facial sensation, dizziness, numbness, and seizures.
Because there are so many different types of insecticides, it can be hard to know exactly what warning signs to look for in yourself, your family, and your pets after using one of these treatments. The best way to protect yourself is to carefully read all package directions before using any product. Only disperse insecticide when there are no children or pets present, and if you have to use it indoors, cover any food and toys first so kids and pets don't ingest any chemicals once they're allowed back inside. Store insecticides in locked cabinets or up high where no child or pet can get to them.
Potential Environmental Effects of Insecticides
It stands to reason that any chemical potent enough to kill hardy insects could also damage the vulnerable plant life surrounding the insects. Soil and groundwater can be contaminated by insecticides used to treat outdoor pests. Wild animals, including birds, may also be harmed or killed by ingesting toxic insecticides.
Your garden could suffer too. Insecticides used outdoors may kill more than just the insects you're targeting. If you have aphids in your garden, spraying a broad-spectrum insecticide will kill the aphids and the other beneficial insects that keep your backyard's ecosystem in balance, like the bees that pollinate your flowers and the predator insects that eat the pests. Grass seed may also be killed by insecticides, so be careful about using it around newly planted grass.
Safer Alternatives to Insecticides
Controlling a harmful insect infestation may be a little more difficult without the use of commercial insecticides, but it's worth trying if you're concerned about potential side effects. You can always start with DIY insecticide techniques and move on to commercial insecticides if necessary. Some of the safe alternatives to insecticides are more effective at repelling insects than killing them.
For example, it may be possible to get rid of ants using things like diatomaceous earth, chalk, and dish soap. Other natural DIY insecticides use borax, neem oil, and even garlic to keep a variety of insects at bay. Certain kinds of plants can also be used to repel pests. Some people plant chrysanthemums in their gardens to discourage mosquitoes from swarming there; pyrethroid insecticides were originally derived from compounds found in the seeds in certain kinds of chrysanthemums.