Safer Pest Control Project – A Chemical Reaction

With warm weather and sunny days, thoughts turn to being outside and getting in touch with nature. This can be heading out to a local park for a picnic, digging into a garden, playing catch in the yard, or enjoying some summer produce at a local market. For all of these places, we have an image for what they should look like. When the reality differs from the image, we ask: 'How can we fix this?'

If you ask this question to a typical lawn care company, they will likely have an easy fix to the problem with the squeeze of a squirt bottle or the spray of a hose. This is like hiding maintenance issues on a heat exchanger by increasing the heater duty. The outlet temperature matches the setpoint, but the reason behind the change is unresolved. Soon the flow needs to be decreased and, eventually, the exchange ceases to work. But are we asking the wrong question? Should it be "What is the cause of this?" Is there a fouling problem in the tubing? Are some tubes blocked? Has something upstream changed?

A healthy lawn should be strong enough to cope with pests and competitors in its environment. Additives to kill pests will weaken the lawn, leaving it more susceptible to other pests and plants. Then another additive is required to combat the new threats. Then since the lawn and soil is damaged (these additives wipe out helpful organisms also) more fertilizer or food for the lawn is required. Since if any one of these inputs is not tuned correctly there is a detrimental effect, the more inputs there are the more complicated the control becomes. A typical lawn care plan can require up to 8 applications per year--not including any pests or other problems that might appear.

There is a better way, just as asking 'What is the cause?' can identify maintenance issues early, this question can better serve your landscape. A healthy plant that is selected for the local conditions (well-drained, highly sandy/organic soil, wet, sunny, shady, hot, etc) can better establish itself and with minimal inputs defend its turf against any invaders, diseases, or weather cycles. Healthy plants also need healthy soil to deliver necessary nutrients and provide the correct growing environment.

A typical lawn company may also say that a healthy plant is a better plant, but their healthy plant relies on frequent supplements and additives. This is not healthy, it is dependent. These applications also tend to be generic applications described as required for many conditions. If soil needs any amendments this should be a targeted response determined by study of the soil and resulting symptoms in the plants.

In Chicago there is an organization that helps with this exact mission--The Safer Pest Control Project (SPCP). The SPCP advocates reduced pesticide usage by limiting pest access to food, water, and hiding places using Integrated Pest Management (IPM). SPCP works closely with schools, municipalities, childcare facilities, and others to reduce pesticide exposure--especially to children who are especially sensitive due to activity, metabolism, and size. SPCP screened the film 'A Chemical Reaction' in Winfield, IL on June 10th that examined this topic. SPCP can also help if you would like to host a screening.

These programs are gaining more traction north of the border with numerous Canadian municipalities banning cosmetic pesticide use. There is growing support in the U.S. with some areas considering regulation or at the very least committing to reducing their chemical usage. The largest pushback on these bans seems to be coming from industry with Quebec, home to the strictest rules, being sued by Dow over the banned list of chemicals. Dow's stand is that the ban was enacted without scientific basis on products approved for market.

Reference Links Related to Safer Pest Control:

Blade of Grass Image:
Dandelion Image by Becky Pflueger
Huntington Gardens, Pasadena Image:

Do you have a lawn or garden? How do you control pests? Any thoughts?


Ahra Kwon's picture

Hmm quite interesting. I've never thought about the chemical usage for lawncare as dependency. I always thought it would make life for the plants stronger, guess not. Now that I think about it, same goes for the human body. We need basic essential nutrients and we've got homeostasis to keep us strong and healthy. My grandmother used to have a HUGE garden in our backyard where we'd grow fresh corn, tomatoes, hot peppers, a Korean type of lettuce, grapeleaves, and lots of green onions. I remember every summer being a bountiful summer with fresh vegetables and now that I recall, she didn't use any chemicals whatsoever. She changed what she chose to plant every year, however. I am not sure if that made a difference in pest control, perhaps it did. We only had a problem with bunnies occasionally visitng our garden, so I helped her fence the perimeter of the garden.

That is a good comparison to the human body. Taking a handful of vitamins is not a good substitute for having a healthy and well balanced diet. They might be helpful as supplement, but not as your primary source for nutrients. There is data showing that diversified plantings (such as your grandmother's garden) are easier to defend from pests since certain bugs target certain plants. When there are a lot of one kind of plant, the field can attract and support plenty of that bug. There is also some experience that some plantings can be symbiotic - for example planting chives next to tomatoes discourage aphids from harming your tomatoes (also called companion planting). Bunnies are hard to control without fencing - though there are some people that say garlic or pepper sprays can help. Rotating plantings helps provide healthier soil as different plants give and take different things from the soil. In general I think variety builds strength.

Instead of using any kinds of chemicals, I just pull the weeds out myself. It is time intensive, but there is some satisfaction to "winning". Something did come by and eat my tulips... but I believe that it was some sort of animal that pesticides really wouldn't work on. There are natural methods for trying to keep deer away from plants, like sprinkling hair clippings, which I hear works pretty well. I would worry also that the pests would evenually develop an immunity to pesticides requiring harsher and harsher chemicals to be used. In places like Texas and Florida, almost everyone treats their lawns with something to deter fire ants from creating nests. Fire ants are particularly nasty. I am wondering what is to be done about pests that pose a significant safety and health threat in the context of this article.

It feels good to see the positive and immediate effects of our labors - not something we all get to see in our day jobs enough usually. Regarding furry pests - I have also heard that garlic or pepper sprays can discourage the nibbling. The NY Times did a piece recently on the development of weeds that are becoming resistant to common herbicides in farm fields. This is something that can have a huge impact on our agricultural outputs if it becomes a trend. Organic farming might be our next option - and not by choice. There are trade off with labor costs, but it has shown to be an effective farming option. I don't know much about fire ants being from the Midwest - other than they are best to be avoided. I would imagine that there are people in those regions that have organic or more natural solutions, but I would not have any idea what those are. I might know some people that would know were to look though if anyone was interested.

Ahra Kwon's picture

I'm wondering if genetic engineering could be a solution to using less pesticides and preventing the resistance that some plants develop. A little tweek in the genetics of a plant can drive some of the nastiest bugs away by increasing the defense mechanisms of a plant whether that mechanism be a chemical or physical defense. Then again, the topic of genetically engineered food crops and human consumption isn't that appealing. And plus, the pests would eventually evolve to find ways around the defense mechanisms of the plant, no?

Genetic engineering can have a very important impact in agriculture. Different strategies can be employed to make the plants either more resistant to environmental conditions, pesticides, or even have features added to make them less appetizing to pests. Any of these can reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers in fields. Though the EU generally disagrees with these kinds of changes and there is some heated debate about the potential risks and rewards. I think that any time you are broadly apply a chemical (as opposed to targeted applications) and leave residue in the environment life will figure a way to get around it. The same is happening with the overuse of antibiotics and developing super-bugs. You have to constantly evolve the treatment. An advantage of a more natural approach is that you are working more in balance with the forces instead of working to maintain unbalance - though you might have to accept some cosmetic differences. One really important potential benefit that I think is being limited by fear more than science is the addition of nutrients into plants. A type of rice has been developed that produces Vitamin A - providing an extremely valuable nutrient generally lacking in many rice based diets. But fear of genetic engineering is keeping this rice, and better nutrition, from the people that need it most.

Ahra Kwon's picture

That's a really good point that you made about the overuse of antibiotics and fear vs. science. So many humanitarian issues concerning nutrition could be solved by adding essential nutrients to staple foods of "third world" countries. Has there been any push to go forth with this type of genetic engineering? or has it totally been denied by the government and federal officials?

On this same topic and going back to the risks... It has been long rumored that hormones in milk have caused kids to grow larger and develop faster than kids of the past - perhaps a reason why I stand at least a half foot taller than my parents. Adding Vitamin D to milk is great (we need it to properly absorb Calcium), but the overall manipulation of the supply chain (the cows, the feed) lead to changes down the line. Genetically engineered foods will have an effect on the people who consume it - doesn't mean it will be bad, but there will be some kind of an effect.

Robert S's picture

There have been significant pushes to get genetically modified (GM) food to help impoverished areas and developed areas. In the US, GM crops are quite popular while in the EU they are practically nonexistent. This might be because, as a country, we do not have as much interest in our food chain as Europe generally does. Or we are more open minded, I don't think there is a clear reason. Either way I think there are way more problems caused by the preparation of the food we eat as opposed to the GM or non-GM nature of the food. In developing countries, there can be feelings of fear or mistrust in the large companies that sell the GM seeds - even if the seeds are being promoted by NGOs. The rice I mentioned has had a hard time gaining traction. I was recently in India and there was a huge debate on bringing a GM eggplant to market that was modified to resist a common blight in the region. There was much animated debate with the GM side losing stream. A proponent of the GM crop obtained some seeds and planted a field of the crop. The blight struck the area but the GM plants were healthy and delivered good yields. This won over many farmers, though the debate is still not settled as far as I know. There is added significance to the farmers of India because many of them can not afford pesticides and one bad crop cycle can ruin them economically. I am not advocating the methods, but the results are pretty evident. As for the risks, I think that there are some unknown risks - such as will the inserted genetics get out into the environment or what other effects can these 'foreign' plants have. Most of the studies I have read have shown that there is no effect in the short term. It is difficult to get good information on some of these topics because much of the press will skew the results for good headlines or take bites out of context. And then there is also the tendency to get conspiracy theories about any widespread practice. Like adding fluoride to the water supply. The hormones in milk is a little different since there is an actual difference in the composition of the milk, though extremely minute. With most of these things I think that there is a small risk, but that risk must be weighed against potential benefit. If something is tested and generally accepted as safe and will improve the lives of many, then it might be worth a risk. But we should also be reevaluating it at regular intervals.

Ahra Kwon's picture

Robert, your insight and knowledge on these issues are fascinating to read! I stand by you on the last point that you made all the way. On a side note, what work were you doing in India? I've always dreamed of going there someday, but I would like to make an engineering impact in some way if I ever do get a chance to travel.

Robert S's picture

Thanks, I think this has been a really good conversation. I work in the refining sector, mainly in aromatics. The company I work for consults with refineries around the world and I travel from site to site. We don't always get to experience much of the locality, but we do get to see a lot of places. India was a very interesting study of contrasts. There is a lot of money and development, but there is also a lot of poverty. Some amazing beauty and some harsh realities. There are definitely many places that an engineer can make a positive impact in the world, and that is one. I have a friend that did some volunteer travel building schools in Egypt and other parts of Africa and he found it very rewarding. I highly recommend travel of any kind because it helps give you a new perspective on some many things.

Steve's picture

Diversifying the lawn can have tremendous benefits. Many lawns are a monoculture composed primarily of kentucky bluegrass, which is not originally from Kentucky, or another single non-native grass species, making these lawns much more vulnerable to disease and pests. Choosing a seed mixture with alternative grasses, for example fescues and perennial rye when considering 'cool' season grasses, will create a lawn that is better able to withstand and adapt to changing environmental conditions. This typically means less maintenance and work too. Simple tweaks can create a much more self-sufficient and sustainable lawn.

James Norton's picture

I have always recommended physical pest control above anything else - putting fences up to keep pests away, limiting access to water and food, getting rid of excess shrubbery. Pest prevention is a much more sustainable form of pest control, as it can be constantly improved, upgraded and it simply becomes stronger over time, unlike chemical pest control. I work as a consultant for a London pest control company, where I work with property and not lawns, but it's a similar principle. I always recommend starting with physical pest control for rodents (unfortunately, the cases is much more complicated with insects like fleas; fumigation is almost mandatory to fully get rid of them). Keeping pests away from your lawn is imperative to the resilience of your home, especially in the case of mice and fleas, but regular lawn care and keeping entry holes shut can have an even longer lasting effect than pesticides. James Norton, Consultant at

Robert Szczesniak's picture

Thanks for the comment. I think the real important thing is to make sure that each situation is evaluated without a fixed "one-size-fits-all" mentality. It is interesting to think about how the challenges and resources change based on the type and size of area concerned. Thinking in a more industrial or public property way, here in the upper Midwest we have issues with Canada Geese. With all the decorative and retention ponds, some birds have stopped migrating since they have access to open water year-round. Their concentrated habitation, however, has some cleanliness and aesthetic problems. Golf courses have been known to have particular problems. They can't be hunted or killed so people have to get creative. So there have been horns or other automated devices, some have hired dogs or birds to patrol. I think there has some been some real success with redesigning the landscape to fit a more natural environment. While some people may find the "clean" look of short cut grass with no shoreline vegetation, the birds love this because they can see predators coming from a long distance. Some courses and municipalities have returned shorelines to a more "natural" state by allowing tall grasses to return. Giving predators a place to hide (even if they are not there) discourages the birds from taking up long-term residence. Again, knowing your environment and using what tools are provided you is often easier than forcing some other solution.