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Safer ways to get rid of bugs (10-7-99)

Do you have a flea or roach problem? Do ants live in your kitchen cupboards? If you're like most people, the first thing you do is reach for the can of bug spray and let the little pests have it. But think before you spray. With each application of insecticide you are releasing potentially harmful chemicals into your home.

"These things are designed to be toxic," says Claudia Miller, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Anyone with an insect problem should "start with the least toxic approaches," Dr. Miller advises.

As a first step, reduce "harborage"--places where insects like to live, such as piles of paper products, or opened containers of flour and sugar. Get rid of the stashed paper and food boxes in self-closing plastic bags. If you still have a pest problem, go for the safer choices in eradication, Dr. Miller says. "Make sure the pesticide doesn't stay around for long." Traps and non-volatile bait systems, in which insects are attracted to a poisonous substance that they then carry back to their nests, are good alternatives.

This less-toxic approach is the concept behind "integrated pest management," or IPM, which is required for pest control in Texas schools. IPM is an orderly pest control method whereby all possible non-chemical methods are used before any pesticide is applied. These methods include good housekeeping procedures, caulking to close up cracks in the walls, and use of bait systems rather than sprayed chemicals.

If you choose to have your home treated, ask the companies you're considering whether they use IPM, Dr. Miller recommends. That's especially important in homes with small children.

Contact: Will Sansom or Jennifer Lorenzo