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

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 city dwellers — 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 to humans and to pets. 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 that include 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 any pet food in closed containers will all help make your kitchen less attractive and hospitable to roaches.  
  • Using inorganic dusting powder. Powders such as silica gel and boric acid can be applied to areas where roaches enter and leave your apartment (e.g., 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.

You may pursue some of this pest-control options on your own or contact your building manager, landlord, or superintendent to have them assist in the management of these creepy-crawlies that are bugging you. Metropolitan living (where multiple-unit dwellings are the norm) presents a challenge when trying to keep your home bug- and rodent-free. But, because the problem is so widespread and there's greater environmental and public health awareness, many landlords and extermination companies are well-versed in IPM.

Your building owner is typically 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 and as a renter, make 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!

Last updated Jan 13, 2017
Originally published Apr 01, 1994

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