For homeowners looking for an alternative to pesticides, integrated pest management is an option. While spraying an ant infestation with insecticide may be convenient, it might not be effective. Pesticides rarely reach their targets, and human exposure to them can cause ill health effects ranging from birth defects to cancer. Not to mention that it just might not work; in order to prevent and treat infestations in your home, you need to do more than spray and bait.
Essentially, integrated pest management is a practical, step-by-step, common sense approach to dealing with pests at home. Its agricultural and community applications are more complicated than its household applications. I interviewed Dr. Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an integrated pest management specialist from the New York State IPM program at Cornell University. I expected her to list off agricultural techniques with Latinate names, but instead she gave me straightforward, no-nonsense pest control advice that any homeowner can follow.
What makes integrated pest management "integrated"?
According to Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann, "Integrated pest management means pesticides are not the silver bullet. You have to do many other things all together to control insects. And it makes perfect sense. When you're talking about mice in the home, you can't just rely on rodenticides. You have to clean up food. You have to close up openings or else you'll never get rid of the rodents. The same sort of process or philosophy applies to almost all pests."
In its home application, the IPM process she mentioned involves investigating, preventing and eliminating the pests that are in your home. The steps boil down to this:
- Investigation: Know if you have a pest or not, and identify what kind of pest it is. Assess how bad the problem is. "In truth, one spider in your house is not going to cause any problems other than your emotional problem," said Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann.
- Prevention: Find out why and how pests are entering the house. Eliminate whatever food source they are entering for. Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann said, "I always say, 'Sanitation is IPM.' It sounds so simple, but it doesn't take much to attract or feed a critter, including a mouse. It could be one kibble of dog food, or a little bit of spilled juice next to the stove that just brings in ants. So cleaning is the secret to eliminating pests."
- Elimination: Get rid of the pests that are already in your home. "This could involve simply vacuuming them up, or it could involve setting baits," said Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann. In extreme cases, some homeowners might need to use pesticides.
The Integrated Approach to Termites
"Termite control is one-dimensional. It has not changed much," said Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann. "The most important part of termite control is doing a yearly inspection. Homeowners can do inspections themselves. It's not hard to do. If you're prone to getting termites, if you live in an area where termites are very active, a yearly inspection is required. There aren't a lot of choices for termite control. You can use liquid insecticides or you can use the baiting technique. When the baiting works, it works very well."
Keeping rodents out of the house is the basis of integrated rodent management. Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann said, "Mice, and even rats, will come in around the foundation to a basement through open doors. Imagine a pencil. If a pencil can slide under a door, that's all the space that is required for a mouse to get in." She continued, "When rodent-proofing a home, you want to get vegetation away from the foundation of the home. So if there are flower beds, you want to pull them back, dig them out along the foundation and put pebbles there or something. It makes it easier for you to inspect, and less likely for mice to hang out there or for rats to try to dig a burrow there."
"Eliminate any reason they might come in," she said. "That would be birdseed, dog food, any kind of food that they could be snacking on."
IPM Solutions for Bed Bugs
Integrated pest management offers effective solutions for bed bug control. Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann is on the New York City mayor's office and city council bed bug advisory board. She suggested the following:
- Mattress encasements: College dorm dwellers, social workers, nurses and anyone who is at risk for picking up bed bugs on the job should use a mattress encasement at home to keep bed bugs out of their mattress. Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann said, "It could be all of us are at risk. That's the difficult part. They can show up in offices. It just depends on where they are in your community as to what your risk is. Nobody really knows that. But people who work with a lot of other people and go into homes are particularly at risk." She continued, "We get calls from people from all walks of life, from the most affluent buildings to the least affluent buildings."
- Traps: Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann suggested the Insect Interceptor. "It's just a dish that goes under the bed leg. It has talcum powder smoothed on the surface, and that prevents bedbugs from traveling up the bed legs. There are also several bed bug traps out there that use carbon dioxide, pheromones and heat. They're complicated. They're a little expensive. People are still working out how to use them best. They have use, like, in an empty hotel room. Whether they can be used in a home that is occupied is unclear. Bed bugs would be more attracted to a real person than to a fake trap."
- Clear your clutter: "Bed bugs are attracted to people. They're not attracted to dirt or filth, but they will survive and they will thrive if a person who gets them lives in a cluttered home, because clutter totally inhibits bed bug control, it inhibits cockroach control, and it inhibits mouse control," said Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann. "The most vulnerable people for pests are people who have a lot of clutter. It doesn't mean that they have to have a filthy home, but they have a lot of stuff. If you have a cluttered home you cannot clean or treat for bed bugs because there are too many places that they hide, or get lost, and you can't inspect it easily."
"A lot of homes get carpet beetles. I see that a lot lately. People always think carpet beetles are bed bugs. Carpet beetles come into everybody's home. They are out in the wild and they can fit right through a screen, they're so tiny. They feed on hair, and if you have pets you have more hair in the house in the cracks and crevices, so that would be entirely related to cleaning," she said.
To spray or not to spray?
At what point in the integrated pest management process should a homeowner consider using pesticide? Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann said, "When you have a problem that can't be solved any other way."
Homeowners need to carefully consider the risk factor when choosing when and which pesticides they use. "Any substance or control measure that you use has toxicity times exposure," said Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann. "So rodenticides are extremely toxic, but there's virtually no exposure because we don't eat them, we don't handle them - we put them in bait boxes. There's really a low risk when using rodenticides correctly. Even if it has high toxicity, if there's no exposure it is low-risk."
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