x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Which do you prefer? A few bugs, or a poisoned home?

Over-use of pesticides is saturating our homes in harmful substances that we barely understand.

At this time of the year, we all like to be outside having a barbecue with friends, or enjoying a nice walk in the beautiful weather. But it is also the time of the year when mosquitoes, flies and other annoying pests are most prevalent.

Pest control is a hot topic in the UAE after eight deaths reported in the past two years that can be linked directly to pesticides. However, what people don't often hear about are the long-term effects of low-level exposure. In fact, it is this type of exposure that the general public is most likely to experience.

Think about it: how often do you use a pesticide spray in your own home or garden? How many times have you called in a pesticide company? Do you use mosquito coils and plug-in pesticide diffusers? Have you ever walked through a fogger? Do you know what products are used in your neighbourhood or workplace? What about your child's school or nursery?

Exposure to synthetic pesticides has been linked to a range of health problems including cancer, depression, Type 2 diabetes, infertility, thyroid disease, organ damage, miscarriage, birth defects and respiratory illness. Scientific studies have also connected pesticides to autism, lowered IQ and ADHD in children.

Despite the scientific data available, many of these pesticides are routinely labelled as "low-toxicity" and are widely available for domestic and commercial use. This is because warning labels are based on high-dosage effects while low-level and long-term effects are generally ignored.

In any case, repeated exposure to pesticides inevitably results in the development of resistance by insects. Head lice, for example, are resistant to all chemical preparations on the market today. The same pattern is now emerging for bed bugs.

As a result, many frustrated pest-sufferers end up increasing the concentration of pesticides above recommended levels. At the same time, chemical companies are developing more and more toxic chemicals in a bid to conquer the newly fortified pests.

Moreover, synthetic pesticides invariably decrease biodiversity by killing other organisms besides their targets. This includes wiping out beneficial insects such as dragonflies, bees and spiders. Birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish also suffer unintended collateral damage.

When pesticide companies are called to eliminate pests, they invariably go for the "big guns". In turn, the companies often cite pressure from demanding and pushy customers to use the most potent chemicals available.

Supermarket shelves are stocked with an array of synthetic pesticide products and remarkably few safer alternatives. In any case, how many shoppers can distinguish a safe pesticide from a toxic one?

The relevant authorities need to insist that supermarkets stock a range of safer pesticide products. There should be signs above all toxic products so shoppers can make more appropriate choices for themselves and their families.

In addition, community awareness would help the public to reduce pests safely in their own homes and gardens through very simple lifestyle changes.

In the case of mosquitoes, the elimination of breeding grounds is the safest and most effective form of protection. This is particularly easy to do in a dry climate like the UAE's. Furthermore, homeowners can install fitted fly screens on windows and doors. Water should never be allowed to stand for more than three days in pet bowls, bird baths, saucers under potted plants, etc. Toilet lids should be kept closed in unused bathrooms. Leaking taps, ACs and irrigation systems should be fixed without delay.

Alas, pesky pests shout more loudly than invisible silent poisons. The overuse of toxic products has resulted in widespread acceptance, complacency and a false sense of security among the general public.

It is time for a worldwide awakening so that we can learn to manage pests in safer and more sustainable ways. The "big guns" should be locked away for the times when we have exhausted other strategies or when the urgency of a problem calls for immediate and drastic measures.


Siobhan Flood is an Abu Dhabi-based environmental management lecturer