Detox Your Yard and Garden
This section is adapted from my upcoming book, Home Detox (Storey, 2023)
Yard and Garden
It’s easy to forget about toxic exposures when we’re outside. We might be paying more attention to our gardens, watching kids play on the swing set, reading a book and relaxing on the deck, or grilling a good meal. Most of us are blissfully unaware of warning signs in our own yards, such as chemical smells, smoke, or drifting chemicals from surrounding areas.
But our outdoor environment stretches beyond our yards. Consider that pesticides and herbicides from neighbors a mile away can affect our risk of cancer and affect fetal development. If you know your neighbors, you might consider sharing what you’ve learned to expand the safe zone around your home out into the neighborhood. A couple of ways to start the conversation is to share this book, share research, and offer alternatives to those who are open to making the change but aren’t aware of their options. In my little village of Port Townsend, Washington, many of my neighbors post “Pesticide-Free Zone” signs to let others know they do not use chemicals in their yards. It catches on.
Insects can be annoying, especially in large numbers. Some, such as mosquitos, fleas, and ticks, can also be worrisome because they transmit pathogens like parasites and bacteria, including Bartonella bacteria and babesiosis. Enormous efforts have been taken to develop effective repellents against arthropods, and it’s no wonder we jumped at an insecticide like N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET). Like many so-called magic bullets brought to us by chemical corporations, though, DEET has a downside. It poses vast environmental and health risks and is now known to be toxic, particularly for infants and pregnant women.
Fortunately, we have effective nontoxic alternatives to use as bug repellents. Coconut oil is highly effective, widely available, and inexpensive. Coconut fatty acids are active against a broad array of blood-sucking arthropods, including biting flies, ticks, bedbugs, and mosquitoes. It repels biting flies and bedbugs for 2 weeks after application, and ticks for 1 week. This natural oil repels with a stronger and longer-lasting residual activity than that of DEET. Researchers found that even diluted coconut fatty acids protect pastured cattle from biting flies for up to 96 hours in the hot summer, which is the longest protection provided by a natural repellent product studied to date.
Plant-based repellents have been tested in many trials, and numerous essential oils have been found effective in repelling bugs, including citronella, pine, and peppermint, which provided complete protection against mosquitoes for over 9 hours.
Many chemical fertilizers are poisonous to humans, pets, and wildlife, especially those containing organophosphates.
Instead, use compost as a natural and nutrient-rich fertilizer, and add organic mycorrhizal inoculant root enhancer to boost plant growth.
Sitting around a fire warming my toes after skiing is a fond memory for me. In retrospect, I have to admit that it always made me cough, my eyes burned, and I felt hungover after those smoky festivities. Years later, I began to understand the connection. Smoke from any source, whether forest fire, fire pit, grill, or bonfire, produces polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are complex environmental toxicants generated during the burning of organic materials (e.g., coal, oil, gas, and wood). Many PAHs can damage DNA, increase cancer risk, and trigger an immune response. PAHs are highly lipid-soluble, which means that they are absorbed into the blood easily and stored in body fat. Even a short exposure is enough to trigger inflammatory responses for many people, such as migraines, muscle pain, and foggy brain. So, if you are burning things outside, be sure to stay out of the smoke and only burn clean organic material, such as firewood and branches, which produces the least amount of smoke. Do not burn plastics, painted wood, plywood, and treated wood.
If you are reactive to PAHs take antioxidants as soon as you are aware of the exposure to help the body excrete the PAHs and reduce the potential for inflammation. Antioxidants are found in plant foods, including blueberries, leafy greens, and citrus, or supplements such as quercetin, vitamin C, or N-acetylcysteine (NAC).
Hoses are so much more toxic than I ever would have dreamed. If only I had known this when I was a kid and drank right out of the hose in my backyard!
The first clue that a hose is contaminated will likely come from your nose. Hose water has a distinctive chemical smell, and in fact, the average garden hose delivers a cocktail of toxins. In 2016, the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, tested 32 new garden hoses from major retailers and found that many PVC hoses contain high levels of bromine (indicating BFRs), lead, antimony, tin, and phthalates. A majority of the hoses had chemical levels deemed “high concern.”
Thirty percent of the hoses tested contained more than 100 ppm lead, which is the threshold set by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) standard for lead in children’s products. Water samples from the hoses had lead levels 18 times higher than the federal drinking water standard. This is concerning because lead causes neurological and kidney damage, high blood pressure, disrupted blood cell production, and reproductive problems. In addition, di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) was found at a level four times higher, and bisphenol A (BPA) at a level 20 times higher, than federal drinking water standards.
The upside to this research was the discovery that polyurethane hoses labeled “drinking water safe” contained no chemicals of concern. When you’re shopping for a new hose, look for a non-PVC hose made of natural rubber and labeled “drinking water safe.” Paying more for a quality natural rubber hose will protect children, wildlife, garden plants, and the garden food we eat. It also will last much longer than the cheaper, thinner plastic hoses that kink and break.
We’ve known for some time that propane emits high levels of PAHs, which create free radicals in our bodies when we breathe propane fumes. Gas grills also create carbon monoxide, which may not be a problem outdoors, but when grills are used in enclosed areas such as shacks, garages, or tents, or too close to a building, the gas can build up and be lethal. Another concern when grilling is the carcinogens that form when food is cooked with very high heat. The black material that forms when meat is charred has been linked to cancer. Keep a close eye on food as you are grilling so you can remove it before it burns and you will be able to avoid charring.
No one should use synthetic chemicals made to kill plants. They are too dangerous, even in small amounts. These poisons damage all life on the planet. Glyphosate is the most widely used broad-spectrum systemic herbicide in the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently put out a warning for glyphosate-based weed killers, stating that they increase the risk of several common cancers by more than 40 percent. Even with the warning label, many people continue to apply these carcinogenic killers with little sense of the danger.
Numerous serious health issues have been proven to be linked to exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides, including and especially Roundup. Glyphosate can block the vitamin A pathways that are crucial for normal fetal development. The risk of brain cancer increases with exposure. Cancer rates are much higher in geographic areas where Roundup is used. A disruption of the biosynthesis of amino acids is linked to heart disease. Even very low doses of Roundup show a disruption of liver cell function. Glyphosate can impact sperm production and decrease testosterone.
Natural Alternatives to Herbicides. Reducing the use of chemicals in our lives requires a new way of thinking, not simply finding replacement products that are less dangerous. For example, we can plant native plants that have a natural resistance to pests rather than buying plants that need pest management. Another idea: I use salt to kill the weeds in my gravel driveway. It’s inexpensive, safe, takes very little to be effective, and the deer in my neighborhood love to come by for a little lick of salt after I sprinkle it on the gravel.
Synthetic chemicals developed to kill pests are highly poisonous to all living things and to the environment. We are exposed to these chemicals through inhaling sprayed dust, drift, skin contact, and eating foods that have been sprayed or grown in pesticide-treated soil. They are absorbed into the bloodstream easily and stored in body fat.
Pesticides play a significant role in some of our most devastating epidemics, including diabetes, cancer, and autism. First, pesticides contain heavy metals like arsenic, barium, lead, and a toxic form of zinc, which are neurotoxins. Sadly, many public areas, urban soil, schoolyards, and residential parks have been found to have high levels of heavy metals due to pesticide use.
Organochlorine pesticides (OCPs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are some of the most concerning environmental pollutants because they are persistent, bioaccumulate, and highly toxic. Exposure to them is linked to diseases of the skin, liver, and immune system, as well as asthma, migraines, inflammation, and cancer. They cause cancer because they are genotoxic and mutagenic. One of the most critical issues with pesticides is that they are persistent organic pollutants, meaning that they stick around for a long time. Many countries are aware of these issues and are actively fighting to ban pesticides.
Diatomaceous earth is a natural product for pest control. It is simply algae shells from the ocean. Under a microscope, diatoms are gorgeous tiny glass structures in a million different forms. These silica shells are powdered and sprinkled into soil to kill slugs, snails, and other small garden pests.
Healthy Pest Management. If pests like fleas, mites, or ants have come into your house, essential oils can be used in diluted form and misted on floors, counters, and carpets. In the case of a flea or mite infestation, food-grade diatomaceous earth can be sprinkled on carpets; it works as a desiccant on larva to stop the breeding cycle. Sprinkle a light layer on every inch of carpet and leave it for a few hours. Then vacuum it up.
Food particles and residues attract a lot of hungry critters, such as ants and mice. If you find that they’re congregating in a particular spot in your home, vacuum it well, then mist it with Tea Tree Wash and wipe the area clean to remove all traces of food.
If you have a problem with insects in your yard, play detective and try to find the breeding ground. Mosquitoes, for example, hatch in standing water, so search out pools of water, buckets, or any item that holds standing water and eliminate it.
In gardens, healthy soil with high levels of microbes is like magic for improving the health of plants and managing pests. Biochar and beneficial mycorrhizae improve the health of plants in your garden so that they can fight pests naturally. Essential oils work well to deter critters like mice and rabbits. A spray of diluted Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds will often do the trick with aphids, caterpillars, crickets, and flies; mix 1 tablespoon Sal Suds with 1 cup water and spray on the leaves of plants. This will desiccate insects’ soft bodies and kill them without damaging the plant. Diatomaceous earth will eradicate fleas and mites.
In addition to its detrimental implications for children when pressure-treated wood is used for play sets and play surfaces, arsenic contamination impacts hundreds of millions of people in the world. It is a well-established human carcinogen and has been shown to cause skin, lung, bladder, liver, prostate, and kidney cancers.
Avoid all pressure-treated wood in your yard and home, because even small exposures to arsenic can cause cancer. And CCA-treated wood releases arsenic readily. Pressure-washing a CCA-treated wood deck in your backyard, for example, will release arsenic into the soil and lawn around the deck, creating a carcinogenic hazard that puts your family, pets, and wildlife at risk.
Instead of arsenic-based preservatives, look for nontoxic treatments to protect wood against water and fungal-borne decay. Newly developed mineral-based treatments, such as borate, penetrate the outer layers of wood and form a barrier that serves as an effective wood preservative.
If your soil has already been contaminated by arsenic from treated wood runoff, look into soil remediation with mushrooms and mycorrhizae, which can remove and metabolize petroleum products, metals, and agricultural chemicals. Biochar, a highly absorbent natural material that can absorb and sequester toxins from the soil so they can be removed from an area, is another option.
Detox Your Yard and Garden Checklist Summary
O Remove and replace toxic items in your yard and garden.
O Stock up on natural products needed for lawn care, pest control, etc.