Greening the Co-op: Least Toxic Home Pest Control Chronicles

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Even the cleanest, neatest New Yorker can still find herself dealing with invasive pests in the home. Partly it's because we live so close together our apartment buildings and rowhouses, and cannot control how others maintain their homes. And partly because this is what these creatures are evolved to do: survive tenaciously on the detritus of other species.

But do we talk about how to deal with these invasive bugs and small mammals? Not much. It seems to be a bigger taboo to talk about this basic fact of life in many big cities than asking that cutie you just met at a LES party how much money he makes. But the typical chemical response to ants, roaches or mice is a lot worse for human and ecosystem health than knowing what a downtown hipster artist makes at his Madison Avenue day job.

Over the past six years in my current home, an apartment in a 16-unit building, I could have probably counted on one hand the number of roaches I saw. Between that and the cats earning their keep catching the extremely rare mouse, I felt very lucky...until this spring, when I began to spot juvenile roaches regularly in my kitchen. Strangely, ignoring the problem and hoping it would go away didn't work. So when a grown-up roach recently fell off the top of my fridge door onto the butter tray, while I was reaching for it (ewwww), I had to act. And since I really don't want to bring hard-core chemical poisons into my small home, I was going to have to trade sweat equity for a quick pesticide fix.

And to my ecstatic relief, it seems to be working.

So here are the steps I've taken, largely informed by the information in "Dan's Practical Guide to Least Toxic Home Pest Control," by Dan Stein (a slim volume that has not let me down over the years). If you're facing a similar situation, dear Worldchanging reader, I hope they'll help you in your quest to live green and relatively roach-free.

  • First off, clean the kitchen top to bottom. Yes, this means rolling the fridge away from the wall and coming to terms with whatever you find underneath. Wash the floor down really well, including the baseboards. Clean the gasket on the fridge. Wipe down the tops of things you haven't looked at in a long time, if ever, like the top of the fridge and the tops of your wall cabinets. Consider taking the cabinet doors off their hinges and cleaning under them as well.
  • I also scrubbed down every exterior part of my stove (bleargh, but I feel a lot happier now when I cook).
  • Next step is where the sweat equity really comes in: caulk every gap in sight. Do not fear the caulk; it is your friend. These days you don't have to invest in a caulk gun and a big tube of goo. At Home Depot, I found small tubes of caulk with conical lids that you can trim to create an applicator -- perfect for the casual caulker.
  • For bigger gaps, you may need to use some lightweight spackle to fill the space. Mix a bit of the spackle with a little water to make it easier to apply. A cheapo spackling knife will be more than sufficient for this task.
  • Put down new roach traps under the fridge, dishwasher, and stove. I got these from the exterminator that comes around regularly in my building, free of charge.
  • Now, watch. If the crawlies don't seem to be vanishing, you may have to root out a particular bug haven. In my kitchen, this might have been a schmancy lidded trashcan I bought used off Craigslist, which eventually went out on the curb on garbage night -- with a big warning note to potential scavengers.
  • Finally, with the roach population ebbing but still disturbing, I've applied some boric acid into roach-prone zones. This is a pesticide of relative low toxicity, but you'll want to be careful not to breathe the dust in as you apply it, or put it down anywhere a pet or child could get to. On the plus side, you only need to apply a mere dusting of boric acid powder to have the desired effect.

Have you got tips for least toxic home pest control? Other books to recommend? Have you organized your apartment building, landlord or co-op to follow least toxic practices across the building? How the heck did you manage that?! Let us know in the comments.

Image, clockwise from left: Steve Roach, The Moon Roach, Hal Roach

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