Wall Street Journal Report on Natural Pesticides
I’m a big fan of Wendy (or Gwendolyn) Bounds from the Wall Street Journal. I met her in July of 2007 during my first appearance on Good Morning America and we’ve kept in touch in the years since then. She’s a huge advocate of trying anything organic in her yard. Given the fact that she’s: a) from the Wall Street Journal and b) tall, blonde and beautiful, she gives those of us on the organic fringes a compelling mainstream ally. Here’s her article from today’s paper. I encourage you to google her videos and articles. She’s a great, insightful writer, too.
JULY 30, 2009.
The Wall Street Journal, page D1
Death by Mint Oil: Natural Pesticides By GWENDOLYN BOUNDS
This summer, the pests around my house are dying of more natural
One colony of wasps on my deck got neutralized by shots of mint oil.
The cabbageworms shredding my broccoli plants were done in by an
ingredient culled from seeds of trees native to India. And I
annihilated several fire-ant compounds by enticing them to eat bait
packed with a soil-dwelling bacterium that fried their tiny nervous
Surprisingly, none of these products were hard to find. Increasingly,
well-known insecticide manufacturers, retailers and even professional
pest-control services are rolling out solutions derived from natural
materials like animals, plants, bacteria and minerals, many of them
considered potentially safer to humans, pets and the environment than
their synthetic-chemical counterparts. Fueling the move is increased
governmental scrutiny over what pesticides we spray in and around our
homes, as well as a bid to satisfy more health-conscious consumers—
especially women, who typically dictate household pest-solution
Targets include everything from carpenter ants and mosquitoes to the
slugs, caterpillars and mites that feast on fruit trees and vegetable
plants. For instance, Terminix, a large professional pest-control
company and division of Memphis, Tenn.-based ServiceMaster Co., is
introducing its first consumer product called SafeShield. The $9.99
indoor insecticide spray contains active ingredients thyme oil and
“geraniol,” a substance found in geranium, rose, lemon and other
Meantime, St. Louis-based Senoret Chemical Co. is expanding its line
of Terro brand ant- and bug-bait products using a mineral containing
the element boron, which is generally considered low in toxicity to
humans and animals. And Lititz, Pa.-based Woodstream Corp. last year
bolstered its Safer product line with an organic mosquito- and tick-
control concentrate made in part from chrysanthemum flowers.
The biggest bellwether came earlier this year when lawn and garden
giant Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., Marysville, Ohio, introduced a seven-
product “EcoSense” line under its home pest-defense Ortho brand sold
in major retailers such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Included in the
EcoSense arsenal: an indoor insect-killer spray made from soybean oil
and an insecticidal soap for vegetables and plants. EcoSense is on
track to meet or exceed sales expectations, the company says.
“There are consumers who want a more natural product lineup,” says
Jeff Garascia, Scotts senior vice president of global research and
development. “A few years ago, we decided that even though the
performance didn’t meet our traditional products, we would push
through anyway. Now we are starting to see efficacy there.”
Efficacy is tantamount to survival. Manufacturers know there’s often
disconnect between what consumers say we want (natural products) and
what we really want (dead bugs, now!). Plus, pests can transmit
illnesses such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease that can be more
harmful than some potential side effects from pesticides. S.C. Johnson
& Son Inc., for instance, launched a Raid “Earth Options” product in
2006, then discontinued it the next year due to low consumer
acceptance. Spectrum Brands Inc. offers a lemon-eucalyptus version of
its Cutter mosquito repellent without DEET (a common chemical
repellent) but says it doesn’t sell very well.
Still, the category continues to draw investment dollars. Next year,
Spectrum plans to launch a natural indoor bug killer to go along with
its Hot Shot and Spectricide insecticides. “There’s just a lot of
movement out there now to use safer chemicals,” says Jay Matthews, a
business director at Spectrum.
Meantime, sales of organic and natural products in the past 18 months
have risen 30% to 40% at the Web site DoMyOwnPestControl.com, run by
P&M Solutions LLC in Norcross, Ga. Best-selling natural items include
“MotherEarth D,” a powder made of diatomaceous earth (ground fossils)
that triggers dehydration and death in bugs, as well as an “EcoExempt
IC-2” spray made from botanical oils such as spearmint and rosemary.
The latter targets a wide range of pests from mosquitoes to bedbugs.
Even the $6.6 billion professional pest-control industry, where
efficacy directly affects profit margins, is adopting more natural
alternatives. For instance, Mesa, Ariz.-based Bulwark Exterminating
LLC, which operates 11 branches in eight states, uses only botanical
sprays and boric-acid products (also derived from boron) whenever
customers request all-natural solutions and often includes them as
part of an overall treatment plan even when they don’t.
“About 35% of people who call now ask us, ‘Will this hurt my kid or
dog?’?” says Bulwark founder Adam Seever. One customer, Carol Kidd,
lives in a rural suburb of Phoenix and recently rang Bulwark to cancel
her service because she was experiencing hormone imbalances and had
read pesticides might be a contributing factor. Bulwark instead
switched her to an all-natural service, employing botanical oils and
boric-acid bait around her foundation instead of a synthetic
solution, and didn’t raise her $44-a-month price.
“I’ve seen no excess insects since switching,” 39-year-old Ms. Kidd
says, “and I’ve got bugs in the yard around my chicken coop, but not
on my patio or in my house.”
The Environmental Protection Agency registers pesticides—an umbrella
term for products that kill insects, fungi and weeds—for use in the
U.S. The agency says general health issues from exposure to pesticides
may range from simple skin or eye irritation to hormonal and endocrine
disruption, cancer and other illnesses.
For instance, a study published in 2000 in the Journal of the American
Medical Association with research from Stanford University found that
in-home use of insect-killing chemicals was associated with a 70%
increased risk of Parkinson’s disease, compared with no use of
pesticides. And in April, the EPA said it will intensify evaluation of
spot-on pesticide products used in pet flea and tick control due to
increases in reported problems ranging from skin irritation to
seizures and death of the animals. Some of the active ingredients also
are found in household insecticides.
Over the years, the EPA has banned some insecticides considered too
risky from use in the home market, such as diazinon and chlorpyrifos.
It also now maintains a list of active ingredients used in what it
dubs “minimum risk” pesticides. “It’s a pretty good bet it’s a safe
product if it’s on that list,” says John Kepner with Beyond
Pesticides, a not-for-profit group based in Washington, D.C.
Today, the most commonly used synthetic residential insecticides fall
into a broad category called pyrethroids—common names include
permethrin, cypermethrin and tetramethrin—which are essentially juiced
up, longer-lasting human-made versions of the natural chrysanthemum
“pyrethrins” used in some natural products. Both affect an insect’s
central nervous system; both can be harmful to aquatic life and
honeybees. The EPA will re-evaluate pyrethroids’ and natural
pyrethrins’ risks starting next year.
To be sure, natural products can trigger health concerns as well.
Citric sprays, for instance, can hurt the eyes, and there have been
questions about the safety of inhaling powders made from diatomaceous
earth or boric-acid powders, Mr. Kepner of Beyond Pesticides notes.
“There are plenty of things from nature that can hurt us—like
In general, though, the EPA says biopesticides are usually “inherently
less toxic” than conventional pesticides and decompose more quickly,
thereby resulting in lower exposures and largely avoiding pollution
problems caused by conventional pesticides. What’s more, the agency
says, they often primarily harm only target pests, which can help
protect beneficial bugs and other animals. (See sidebar.)
Generally, my own pest issues have disappeared using only natural
products. One exception: carpenter ants, likely a byproduct of
multiple firewood piles around the property and a recent roof leak
(the ants like moisture). To wage war, I carefully applied a tiny bit
of a synthetic pyrethroid dust inside crevices around my ceiling beams
where no children or pets could reach—and where the bugs had left
traces of activity. (At the time, I didn’t have the botanical version
on hand.) Elsewhere, I’ve used all natural controls, including a mint
and herbal oil spray along the backyard foundation where my dog roams
and MotherEarth’s and Terro’s boric-acid bait near woodpiles and the
front door where I saw ants marching. So far, it’s working pretty
One day, however, my dog Dolly got free from her fence and gobbled up
a mouthful of the boric-acid bait. Panicked, I called a pet poison
control hotline (800-213-6680) and was told not to worry, that the
active ingredient was “very safe” with low concern for toxicity, and
Dolly would be fine. That was the most compelling sales pitch for