Safe, non-toxic way to get rid of roaches?

Originally Published: April 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: January 8, 2010
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Dear Alice,

My housemates and I have a real roach problem. We have the option to have the place sprayed every month for free, but we are all concerned that the spray might be toxic to humans. Is it? What other healthy alternatives are there?

—Tenants, West 112th

Dear Tenants, West 112th,

Roaches tend to inspire a special brand of hatred among New Yorkers — and with good reason. Roach debris can worsen asthma, allergies, and other breathing problems and contaminate your food. Unfortunately, treatments such as spraying have also been shown to pose health risks, including triggering asthma symptoms. Pesticides used in the home, such as roach spray, can also be particularly damaging to children's developing neurological systems. In addition, roach spray can be more expensive and less effective than a form of pest management called integrative pest management (IPM). IPM relies on strategies like removal of potential roach nutrients, shelter, and entry into the apartment, as well as educating tenants about roach habits to end infestations. Many find IPM preferable to spraying chemicals that can remain in the air people breathe and accumulate on surfaces that people touch.

Common elements of IPM include:

  • Using roach baits. Roach baits, those little plastic domes or discs filled with gels, pastes, and dusts, contain poisoned food that a roach will carry back to its nest, where it will die. If other roaches eat the dead roach (which is likely), they will die of the poison too. Although not much poison is needed in this method, it's a good idea to put baits in a place where people won't touch them.
  • Denying roaches entry and hiding places. Use a caulk gun to seal up holes and cracks around shelves, cupboards, pipes, sinks, electrical fixtures, outlets, doors, and windows where roaches can enter your home. You can also screen vents or other openings that lead in from the outside. Clean up piles of newspapers, shopping bags, and other clutter that may be providing roaches hiding places and shelter to lay eggs.
  • Denying roaches food. Make sure your kitchen floors, counters, sinks, and tables are cleaned of food scraps and standing water. Storing food in tightly sealed containers, being careful not to leave dirty dishes on counters or in the sink overnight (your roommates will like this one), and keeping trash and pet food in closed containers will all help make your kitchen less attractive and hospitable to roaches.  
  • Using Borate powder. Borate powder can be applied to areas where roaches enter and leave your apartment (along baseboards and electrical outlets). The powder sticks to roaches' bodies and poisons them when they try to lick it off. This can be used in conjunction with roach baits.
    List adapted from Environmental Health Watch.

Living in New York City provides a challenge when trying to keep your home bug- and rodent-free. But because the problem is so widespread and greater environmental and public health awareness, many landlords and extermination companies are well-versed in IPM. Columbia students living in Columbia housing can contact Housing Services (CC/SEAS) or University Apartment Housing (grad students) for any pest problems. The website Beyond Pesticides offers interesting articles and resources on the issue. Cornell University's extension office offers IPM tips for buildings and you can read more about the potential harms from roach spray and other pesticides in this New York State Attorney General's report.

Your building owner is obligated to use safe and effective methods to help you control your roach problem, including fixing any leaks or holes that might provide an entry way for roaches. In turn, you as renter should be sure to inform your building manager as soon as roaches are spotted, and keeping living areas clean (wash dishes, sweep, store food properly, take out the trash). Hopefully, this information can help you keep West 112th Street roach and spray free!

Alice