Pesticides are often thought to be something conventional farms use to protect their crops from a range of unwanted pests. But we also use pesticides in our homes, usually without realizing it. For example, many cleaning products and disinfectants are actually considered pesticides. Pesticides can be useful for dealing with unwanted or harmful creatures, but they can come with harmful and unintended side effects.

What Defines a Pesticide?

A pesticide is any substance intended to kill or control a “pest”. The term includes herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides, and can be synthetic, biological, or bioengineered into genetically modified (GM) seeds.

While chemical and GM pesticides can be fast and effective, they're generally short-term solutions that need to be reapplied season after season. It's also common for weeds, bugs and other pests to build a resistance to these non-natural solutions over time, which means larger quantities of chemical pesticides are needed, or an entirely new solution must be developed.

Alternatively, biological pest control can take longer to take effect, but generally requires only an initial cost investment and offers safer, more long-term results. Biological pest control employs the use of natural predators, proper crop rotation, and other techniques that empower more natural solutions, promote healthier soils and biodiversity, and don't require chemical toxins.

Harmful Effects of Non-Natural Pesticides

People, plants, and animals can be exposed to pesticides in food, water, air, and soil. These chemicals can enter our bodies through absorption, ingestion and inhalation. 

Health effects for both humans and animals include allergies, asthma, birth defects, decreased sperm count and fertility, and various cancers. Pesticide exposure can also alter the normal development of children and cause severe neurological defects.

In the environment, pesticides have been linked to a dangerous decline in honeybee populations worldwide. They unintentionally kill valuable species alongside their intended targets, cause degradation of critical water habitats, and harm healthy soils that are home to essential plants and organisms.

Avoiding Pesticides

The best way to avoid pesticides at home is to take preventative measures against getting pests in the first place. Make sure you seal your food tightly, eliminate sources of standing water, and bug-proof your window and door seals. You can also limit exposure to pesticides by eating organically grown fruits and vegetables whenever possible, and by using natural cleaning solutions.

If you’re a gardener, keep your plants strong by properly rotating them each season and using natural means to promote healthy soils. If you feel you must use a chemical pesticide in or around your home, be sure to follow the product’s instructions carefully, wear protective gear, and wash your hands thoroughly after use.

For questions or concerns about specific pesticide prevention, disposal, or safety, check out the National Pesticide Information Center or the EPA’s pesticide page.