Keeping Kids Safe and Pests Out


Bugs and rodents roaming your home?

Ants, rats, and other pests can wreak havoc in your home and may expose your family to harmful diseases.

As a parent, knowing your pest control options can help you choose an effective pest management strategy while minimizing your family’s exposure to pesticides.

The first step to reducing your child’s exposure to pesticides is to practice preventative measures.

For those pests that get into the house or garden, below are 10 approaches to getting rid of pests without reliance on pesticides that may pose a threat to children’s health. Employing low-impact tactics does not mean having to put up with rodents or bugs, and  these approaches usually offer a longer-term solution.

1. Rats and Mice

Keep rats and mice out of the house by eliminating their food supply, screening windows and doors and sealing any other potential entry points. If rats and mice have already gained access, traps are the best option for getting rid of rodents without risking accidental poisoning. Just be sure to place traps in areas that are out of reach of children and pets or in plastic enclosure boxes. For more information, including a description of various types of rodent traps and an overview of rodenticides, see the PRI Rodent Control Bulletin and the Safe Rodent Control Coalition‘s Rodent Control Strategies page.

2.  Fleas

Fleas most commonly get into the house on pets that spend time outdoors. Since fleas are usually found in places that do not get direct sunlight, keeping outdoor grass and foliage cut short, as well as blocking pet access to places that don’t get much sunlight, will reduce the chances that pets will pick up fleas in the yard. Remove any fleas that do get onto pets by grooming them with flea combs or bathing pets regularly. Also be sure to vacuum the house and wash pet bedding at least once a week, more often for severe infestations. For more information, including a comparison of flea control measures and products, see the PRI Flea Control Bulletin.

3. Ants and Roaches

When ants and roaches get into the house, try first to pinpoint their entry points and seal them with caulk or weatherstripping . Also, eliminate their food source by cleaning up all crumbs and spills, storing attractive foods like sugar in the refrigerator, sealing all food containers, rinsing food and drink containers before throwing them out, not leaving pet food out overnight, and repairing leaky pipes. Spraying ants with soapy water or wiping them up with a soapy sponge will not only kill the ants but also eliminate the trail that other ants follow. If you find that pesticides are necessary to get control, use enclosed bait stations instead of sprays to reduce exposure to pesticides and the risk of accidental poisoning. For more information, see the PRI Indoor Ant Control Bulletin, the University of California, Davis ant management site; the PRI Cockroach Control Bulletin,  and the EPA roach brochure.

4. Lice

Lice infestations may be prevented by teaching kids to avoid hair to hair contact, like sharing brushes, hats, and pillows. Treat lice by liberally applying coconut, neem, or olive oil shampoo to the hair and scalp to kill the lice. Brush through clean, damp hair, then separate it into sections and thoroughly comb each section with a metal nit comb, being careful to submerse removed lice or nits in hot soapy water. Wash pillowcases, hats and other items that may have loose hairs on them in hot water and dry them in the dryer, and soak hairbrushes in hot water. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, lice do not live for long between feedings, nor can they live on pets, so lice that are removed from the hair but get away during treatment are not likely to cause another infestation. For more information see the PRI Lice Control Bulletin.


5. Bed bugs

Bedbugs get into homes on clothing, suitcases or furniture that has been in an infested area. Prevent infestations by keeping a close eye on your luggage when you are traveling. Check your hotel room closely and keep your suitcase off of the floor or in the bathroom to prevent bedbugs from crawling into your clothes. Getting rid of bedbugs is difficult and takes a combination of practices that range from removing clutter and vacuuming, to sealing cracks and crevices. Bedbugs are sensitive to extreme temperatures, so thoroughly wash clothing and bedding in very high heat. Furniture that is severely infested may need to be discarded. If you are discarding furniture, wrap it and label it as infested so no one brings it home and creates a new infestation. If the infestation is severe, it is usually best to contact a professional pest control service (see #9 below); heat treatments are the most effective and least toxic. For more information see the EPA bedbug information page, and the Center for Disease Control and EPA joint statement on bedbugs.

6. Mosquitoes

Reduce the number of mosquitoes in and around the house by eliminating stagnant water, especially around places where children play, and screening windows and doors. Protect children against bites by dressing them in long pants and long-sleeved shirts, when possible, and cover strollers and baby carriers in mosquito netting. If covering up is not an option, look for lower toxicity mosquito repellants such as citronella oil or oil of lemon eucalyptus. If using mosquito repellant, be sure to closely follow the instructions on the label. For more information, see the US EPA Mosquito Control page and the Beyond Pesticides fact sheet on mosquitoes.

7. Gardens

Gardens host a wide variety of pests, from aphids and beetles to slugs and gophers, and protecting children from chemicals used to treat these pests means employing a broader range of tactics. Planting flowers that create habitat for predatory insects goes a long way toward bringing insect levels down to a tolerable level, and you may not need anything else. But if you notice high populations of insect pests, using insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils instead of more toxic insecticides is the best approach. Rotating crops and choosing fungus- and nematode- resistant plant varieties are the easiest way to prevent many garden pests from reaching a problematic level. Mulching with compost or straw will keep down weeds, and fencing below the soil line will also keep burrowing animals like gophers and moles to a minimum. For more information see the PRI Garden Pest Control Bulletin.

8. Anti-bacterial soap

Both US EPA and the FDA are currently reviewing triclosan, a common ingredient in anti-bacterial soaps, which has been in question since recent scientific studies have shown that the chemical alters hormone levels and hinders muscle contractions in animals. Although the health effects of triclosan in humans are not known, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that there is no evidence that triclosan is any better at removing germs than regular soap and water, but it does make the bacteria resistant to the chemical. Washing hands with regular soap and water is the best way to remove bacteria and prevent illnesses, and reduces the chance of bacteria becoming resistant to anti-microbial agents. To wash hands effectively, wet them with clean, running water, and scrub well with soap for at least 20 seconds, being sure to scrub the back of your hands, between your fingers and underneath fingernails. If soap and water are not available, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends using an alcohol-based sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol. For more information, see the US EPA Triclosan Facts page and the Registration Review Docket, the FDA triclosan consumer health bulletin, and the CDC hand-washing site.


9. Hiring a pest control professional

When looking for a professional to monitor and treat pest infestations in your home, look for companies that offer pest prevention and non-toxic solutions with a strong understanding of integrated pest management (IPM). IPM principles look first to preventing pests from getting established, and then focus on the least toxic options for treatment. When considering pest control professionals, review the company’s website and discuss the proposed treatment approaches with company employees to determine the methods used to deal with roaches, rats, and other pests. If the staff dismiss the risks of conventional pesticide treatments or seem unaware of them, look elsewhere. Although no national standards yet exist for non-toxic pest management professionals, there are several private certification programs, including Green Shield, which is operated by the non-profit IPM Institute of North America. Several smaller certification programs also exist at the state and local level, like EcoWise in California. These programs have developed their own standards for certification and have different definitions of what types of treatments, including pesticides, are acceptable. Review the certification requirements before relying on them to choose a pest control professional. For more information, see the EPA’s IPM site, and the Green Shield and EcoWise websites.

10. Pesticides and Food

Pesticide residues are found in many foods, from fruits and vegetables to milk and flour. While most of these residues are generally low, there are often mixtures of pesticides found in a single piece of fruit or vegetable. The consequences of exposure to multiple pesticides are not well known. To avoid this uncertainty, go with organic food.  Recent studies show that children eating organic food are exposed to fewer pesticides than those eating conventional food. Certain foods contain more pesticide residues than others, so if it is not possible to buy only organic foods, focus your organic purchasing on those items that pose the greatest risk. Fruits that contain especially high residues or many different pesticides include apples, strawberries, peaches, blueberries, and grapes; vegetables include celery, sweet bell peppers, leafy greens like lettuce, kale and spinach, green beans, cucumbers and potatoes. Also, some pesticides concentrate in fats, so removing the fat from meat can reduce pesticide exposure. Two on-line tools with mobile apps that can help shoppers choose which items to buy organic are the Pesticide Action Network’s shopping tool What’s On My Food? and the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Produce that lists the Dirty Dozen foods, as well as the Clean 15.