December 2, 2011

Several Dozen Words About Pesticide Safety 

The FIRST thing to use when handling
any pesticides; nitrile gloves

Over the last 40-plus years that I have grown plants, I have seen a major shift in the feelings about pesticides. As a child, I remember my father using a smelly gray granule on ant mounds to get rid of pesky ants. 2 decades ago, I remember looking at the 40 year-old container, stuck in the back corner of a tool shed, to see that it was a cyanide compound ! I hear many tales of gardeners long ago, using nicotine sulfate on their vegetable gardens, mercury fungicides on millions of tons of grain crops, arsenic to control grasshoppers, and a very wide range of compounds that are eminently lethal to just about everything.

Today, modern pesticides are a great deal safer than 50 years ago, but are still toxic in specific ways. We have a far better understanding of how these products work, as well as their impacts on us, wildlife, and the environment at large. We should still look carefully at pesticide use. Here in Miami we are experiencing outbreaks of a number of pests, including Rugose whitefly, Gumbo Limbo scale, and the newly-introduced Red Palm Mite. In many states, emerald ash borer is a major threat to forests, and the list goes on. Locally, there is a high demand for pest control companies to use insecticides to control whiteflies on Ficus trees to avoid the trees' defoliation. In an area with a very high water table ( less than 10 feet below ground), the widespread and protracted use of any pesticide is cause for concern, and should be examined carefully.

I read an online article citing that several million bees were found dead on the east coast of Florida recently, a massive synchronous death that points toward the use of aerial pesticides for mosquito control. What are the risks of using such products, in populated areas ? The applicators would say that the risks are minimal, and that may be true. The point to be made is that we should all look at our individual use of pesticides, as we would our demand for electricity and water, and our production of waste products. There are commercial users of all these commodities, and we won't change their habits easily, but we can change ours.  

VERY cheap protection for your face
 Organic insecticides still have risk factors to them, since they sometimes need to be used more frequently and at higher rates to get the control the customer wants. While such products have a greater safety margin than the synthetic products, they should should still be used cautiously. Any product, even the most basic ones such as sulfur and diatomaceous earth, have risk factors. Use them judiciously, and follow the label directions exactly. The acronym PPE ( personal protective equipment) has become quite the buzz-term in pest control. I know of a number of older growers with various tumors, missing fingernails, and missing anatomy due to carelessness with pesticides decades ago. I recommend the greatest amount of PPE you can tolerate wearing. 

dust mask for working with
dry pesticides and dusty potting materials
to be worn under the face shield

For most off-the-shelf products, the minimum PPE would consist of nitrile gloves, a dust mask with an N90 rating or higher, and a face shield to prevent products from splashing your face. After I got some miticide spray on my face during a wind gust a decade ago, I became a believer in full-face protection, not just goggles. The better solution is to wear a disposable painter's suit ( usually made of Tyvek fabric), in addition to face and hand protection if you are spraying an area. If you are using a small hand sprayer for a few plants, or root-drenching plants with a systemic insecticide, I still recommend a face shield and gloves. The face shields are quite cheap, and can save you a lot of pain in the chance event of some back splash from your pesticide products. 

As with all pesticides, use the minimum amount of any product to do the job, and examine the circumstances that allowed the pest population to boom. Changing the density of a planting, increasing sunlight, and diversifying plant groups can help a lot with pest control. Pesticides, in most cases ( even water can be a good pesticide) can be a hazard to your health when used improperly. Follow the product label; it is the law. Protect yourself and the environment. Use caution, use protective gear, and be aware of where your pesticides drift or get spread out. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens