This is a post I wrote in the past that is very near and dear to my heart. Many of you may have missed it, and the old blog is not viewable on several browsers now, so I’d like to share it with you again.
For a year we lived on 1/2 acre of land in Northern California wine country. We moved away from that area four months ago, in part due to this incident….
March 8, 2008
So I had to take a few days before writing this to calm down and write rationally. I’m rational now (as rational as I’ll ever be), and I’m going to to three things here: tell you a personal story about pesticides, tell you some of the other problems with herbicides and pesticides, and give you some alternatives for your garden. So please bear with me – don’t go away – this is important!
A Little Backstory…
We moved here back in May, to a beautiful little area next to a vineyard. As we settled in, we found that there was a cat living beneath our porch. Chatting with the neighbors one day, I learned that she’d been abandoned four years earlier by some bad tenants (they also left a dog that the neighbors took in).
First we gave her a name: Raisin, as she came out of the vines in the heat of the summer. Then we started feeding her, and spending time with her, slowing gaining her trust. After a few months of fairly hard work at it, she was happily snuggling next to us in our bed every night, right beside our dog Ellis.
We made a little opening in one of the windows, so Raisin could go in and out to do all her business. In other words, no litter box necessary. Raisin has been a happy indoor/outdoor cat ever since.
She was a dream cat, very low maintenance but full of love.
What Happened Wednesday Afternoon.
Normally Matt and I carpool on Wednesdays: I drive him to work and then go read until my Master Gardener class, then I pick up Matt and we drive home together. On a whim, I decided I just wanted to go home in between – basically I was sick, and I wanted to be home for a while. So I suppressed my guilt for spending extra CO2, gas, and money, and went home for a few hours of down time.
After an hour at home, I heard Raisin scratching at the door. Usually she pushes it open, so it was a bit strange. I went to open the door and she fell into my office convulsing, with little control over her muscles. Her face was ticking and twitching wildly, she was licking her mouth very strangely… it was scary, to say the least. I ran through a list in my head of all the things it could be: scared by a hawk or truck, bit by a snake or scorpion, or she ate something bad. But I didn’t ponder for long – I wrapped her in a blanket and dashed to the vet.
On the way to the vet, Raisin became worse. I brought her and the blanket into my lap, and she crawled into the smallest possible ball. Her body was hot hot hot. She was terrified. When I pet her, lots of fur fell out. She was becoming increasingly limp. I stepped on the gas a little harder.
I pulled up to the Humane Society and rushed her in, then I waited in the waiting area for about 10 minutes, my heart pounding as I spoke sweet words to our kitty. Finally the technician came in and took her vitals. She was running a high fever, breathing rapidly, and her whole body was now shaking out of control.
Not two minutes later the vet dashed in, did a quick check over, and scooped her up. She quickly said, “I’m taking her in the back. She has all the signs of being exposed to pesticides.” “Ah,” I said with a quivering voice, remembering I’d taken the above photo when I first got home, “they were spraying in the fields today.” With that confirmation, off she went with Raisin, saying behind her, “I’ll call you in 45 minutes. We’re going to give her an iv, medicine to calm her down, and a thorough bath. I’ll let you know if it doesn’t work.” And she was gone.
I left the office in a panic, called my husband who left work a little early, and we waited. And waited. An hour later the vet called, saying she’d been able to lower Raisin’s temperature, slow the convulsions, and she was no longer worried. She’d give her a break for a while, then try a very thorough bath to remove the pesticides. We could come get her between 4 and 5pm. Sigh of relief times ten.
Here’s what the veterinarian told me: The pesticide was working on Raisin exactly the way it is designed to work on insects. It makes the muscles twitch so that the body continues to heat up to the point of death. It happens to dogs and cats. And, I assume, it happens to the birds, frogs, toads, jack rabbits, coyotes, wild turkeys, and beneficial insects – all found outside our home and in the vineyard. I feel anger creeping into my soul now.
Raisin is doing well. She came home wet and mad as hell, she can’t go outside anymore, and we have to keep drugging her with muscle relaxants (to stave off the pesticide mechanisms)… But she is alive!
Boy am I glad I went home Wednesday. It saved this cat’s life, most definitely. Below, is one drugged-out kitty.
Other Reasons Not To Use Pesticides.
The term pesticide includes insecticides, herbicides, and “any substance intended to control, destroy, repel or attract a pest.” (CDC)
1. YOU DON’T NEED TO! See my alternatives below, but in a backyard garden there is no reason to use them. None. It’s not worth the consequences to you and your family, your pets and your neighbors’, your soil, and your food.
2. You’re killing your soil. There is a saying “feed the soil, not the plant.” The soil is the essence of your crop: it’s where matter is eaten by macrobes and microbes (there are 1 billion microbes per gram in good soil), and pooped out in a form that your plants can consume. When you spray a pesticide, you’re killing all those macrobes and microbes you’ve worked hard to nurture.
3. You’re risking your own health. What I didn’t tell you earlier is that I have a terrible rash on my neck and face from holding Raisin, who had pesticide on her fur. It’s terribly itchy and it hurts, too. That’s the minor, short-term issue. Long-term problems include neurological problems like tremors, depression and fatigue, respiratory problems, cancers, degeneration of the retina, longer-than-average menstrual cycles, and reproductive issues. (Journal of Pesticide Reform, Summer 2006) The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10,000-20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide poisonings occur each year among U.S. agricultural workers. The agency also believes that these are serious underestimates. (CDC)
The CDC has found pesticides in the blood and urine of 100% of the people it studied. The average person carried 13 of the 23 pesticides analyzed. (Organic Consumers Association)
4. You’re risking your family’s health. In 2004, an estimated 71,000 children were involved in common household pesticide-related poisonings or exposures in the United States. (EPA) Children are especially sensitive to pesticides, as they have a small body weight and their organs are still developing. And don’t forget that often these incidents happen inside your home: A Dallas study of children poisoned by pesticides at home found that 15 percent had absorbed pesticides through their skin from contaminated carpets and linens. (Texas Center For Policy Studies & Environmental Defense)
5. You’re risking your pet’s health. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, over 30,000 pet poisonings related to pesticides are reported to their poison control center each year. Dogs who live in homes with pesticide-treated lawns are more likely than others to develop bladder cancer, according to a Perdue University study.
6. It harms wildlife. Herbicides can kill and contaminate the food and shelter for many wild animals. Additionally, it has been found to cause reproductive harm in frogs. (Science News here and here.) And genetic harm in fish (Journal of Pesticide Reform).
7. It contaminates your food. One study showed that 70% of non-organic fruits and vegetables were be contaminated with at least one pesticide (Journal of Pesticide Reform, Summer 2006). It showed contamination in 95% of certain fruits and vegetables like peppers and apples, and 100% in milk samples. Once it’s in your food supply, you’re again risking your health (#3).
8. It contaminates our water. According to the US Geological Survey, 30-60% of wells were contaminated with at least one pesticide. By that same study, 14.1 million people routinely drink water contaminated with five major agricultural herbicides. None of these are removed by treatment plants. Additionally, runoff from farms and lawns can contaminate rivers, streams, and watersheds.
9. It contaminates our air. By walking through your lawn and into your house, you are carrying particles that then adhere to the dust in your home. Furthermore, pesticides can remain in the air and on surfaces in the home for 21 days up to several years. Pesticide particles can also be sucked into homes, offices, and schools via ventilation systems (Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides).
10. It doesn’t work. More than 500 species of insects and mites and more than 150 types of fungi (a 50 percent increase over the past decade) are now resistant to some pesticides. By spraying pesticides, you are treating the symptoms rather than the root cause of the problem. If your plant has aphids, for example, it may be vulnerable because it isn’t getting enough nutrients or sunlight. And without addressing the problem, you will have to continue to apply pesticides during each life cycle of the pest (sometimes several times per year).
Alternatives to Pesticides.
1. Let it Be. Society tells us bugs are bad. But you know what? You can create your own ecosystem right in your backyard if you let your creatures come into balance. Last summer I had aphids badly. I wanted to spray, but I decided to wait and see what happened. Lo and behold, one day I saw a ladybug. A few days later I saw another. Over the next several weeks, I saw many more, and one day the aphids were gone. Now I have soldier bugs and all sorts of beneficial creatures in the yard. (At least until the vineyard guys sprayed pesticides. Sigh.)
2. No Really, Let it Be. I had a zucchini plant with powdery mildew last summer. For months. Did you see how many zucchini I harvested? I’m sure it made the plant less productive. But do I care? What the heck would I have done with more zucchini?!
Ask yourself if it really matters. Do some of your apples in your apple tree have worms? Well, do you end up with too many apples at the end of the year that you don’t know what to do with them? Then why not share a few with nature? The birds that eat the worms will love you for it.
3. Treat the Soil. A healthy soil makes for a healthy plant. Make sure you give your plants some yummy black gold compost every year. Making a compost tea can bring back beneficial root microbes, increasing a plants resistance to disease (see more here, here, and here). And if you haven’t done so, do get a soil test to see just what is deficient in your soil – and then replace that nutrient.
4. Plant the correct distances apart. When plants compete with one another for light, water and nutrients, they become stressed. Believe me, I have a lot of aphid-covered brussels sprouts out there right now because I planted them too close together and I didn’t thin them well enough.
5. Weed. Ok, I’m not an avid weeder. I think sometimes weeds can be beneficial. For instance, my epazote weeds kept my tomatoes warm through a couple of mild frosts last year. But weeds will compete with your crops if they’re too close, and they may bring pests with them too.
6. Rotate Your Crops. Don’t plant tomatoes in the same place every year, as you will end up breeding a hefty population of pests that can rely on a steady supply of tomato year after year. Mix it up a bit. You can find a crop rotation diagram in most good gardening books, but essentially you want to rotate like-crops together (ie, don’t plant cucumbers where you planted zucchini last year). Make sure to do a three-year rotation at the least.
7. Interplant Different Crops Together. Similar to #6, you don’t want to have a big feast waiting for a pest, by planting a bunch of one crop all in one place. Confuse them by interplanting. For instance, I’ve planted scallions and carrots together, beans and radishes, herbs and flowers… the list is endless. Try planting herbs and native flowers with your veggies to draw beneficial insects, too.
There are some companion planting books out there like Carrots Love Tomatoes. Truthfully, I like the idea of these books more than I’ve liked the books. So my best suggestion is to try different things and see what works for you.
8. Research Your Pests and Alter Your Planting Schedule Accordingly. Carrot rust flies, for example, lay eggs in the spring. If you can delay your planting until after that time, you will have rust fly free carrots. Also, by germinating seedlings indoors, you will be planting hardier plants that can withstand a few bites from pests (whereas a seed planted in situ will be very vulnerable with just one or two leaves).
9. Pick, Spray (with water), Prune, Shake. Do the easy things first. Find a cucumber beetle? If you can’t stand that it’s going to cut a little hole into your leaves, hand pick it off the branch and squish it. Got spider mites or aphids? Spray em with a forceful spray on your hose nozzle (be careful not to damage your plants with too hard of spray). Tree have a pathogen concentrated on a few spots, like powdery mildew? Prune away the bad, make room for the new. And make sure to prune so that your tree’s branches aren’t competing with themselves or holding in too much moisture. Cucumber beetles too high to squish? Shake em down and squish em.
10. Other Organic Controls: Trap, Use Row Covers, Mulch, Bag Fruit…. There are lots. I particularly love The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control. It walks you through different crops, what pests they have, and what you can do to combat them. It also has a great insect identification guide, which I’ve found incredibly useful.
If You Or You Pet Is Exposed To Pesticides.
Time is of the essence. Don’t delay, go to an emergency room or veterinary hospital right away. When in doubt, just go!!!
- American Poison Control Center
- Animal Poison Control Center ($60 donation, but worth it for your pet if you can’t get to a veterinary hospital)
- Herbicide and Pesticide Exposure Checklist
- If you have come in contact with pesticides, make sure to launder your clothing using these guidelines.
*Those of you in other parts of the world, please let me know what resources you use and I will add them here!*
Update: Raisin is doing well as an indoor cat. This is one loved and lucky kitty! She plays with toy mice, watches bugs and people outside from her window perch, and loves her brother, Ellis (our dog). After confronting our neighbors, we learned the pesticide they sprayed was Roundup.