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Conquering the Contemptible Cock-a-Roach

Q. What do you recommend for roaches? When we've had them in the past, we had a pest control company spray indoors, even though that wasn't our preference with two small kids. It's not a huge problem, but every now and then we see one. We hadn't seen one in months and then one appeared in the bathroom medicine cabinet! We try and keep a clean home, but we live in a row house, so we're not sure what might be going on 'between the walls'.

    ---Rebecca in Alexandria, Virginia

A: Ah yes, roaches—the truly despicable foe; and one that everyone has had to deal with at one time or another. (I could tell you about an experience I once had in a New York City apartment, but I want to try and hold onto the few readers we still have left here.) These creatures are ubiquitous, and yet the social stigma attached to them is so great that few people 'dare' to talk about them. And so when they see one, they think they have no other choice than to spray pesticides inside their home.

…Pesticides that are a real danger to children. And adults, and pets. And which may only make the problem worse. Studies have shown that an impossibly small percentage of the spray ever makes contact with the targeted pest. Plus, roaches are highly adaptable; they quickly become resistant to old-school poisons. But predators of roaches, like spiders and house centipedes, are more biologically complex and adapt less slowly. So they're killed off by the spray, the real pests stage a comeback and there are no predators left to stop them.

Now Rebecca has already identified part of the problem—Doctor Joe Kunkel, a 'Roach Researcher' I consulted for this story, pointed out that roach problems are always going to be worse in row homes and apartments. That's not so much because something terrible is happening in the other units, but because it's difficult for multiple households to coordinate their extermination efforts—so the pests can generally find a safe haven and then return to your place later.

You do everything right, they hide next door for a couple of months and then…one night you wake up and need a Tylenol, open up the medicine cabinet and there's Sparky waving his antennae at you.

Does that image really creep you out?

It creeps everybody out, which makes Becky a bona-fide hero for asking for advice; there are thousands of other listeners and readers who will benefit from what we say here who didn't have that courage. Now, I asked our old friend Bill Quarles, Director of the BIRC—the Bio Integral Resource Center in Berkeley, California —to help me make a list of safe, sane—and effective controls. Let's do this in bullet points:

  1. Don't panic and start spraying toxins around; indoor spraying has been shown to increase pest problems by killing off spiders and other beneficial predators.
  2. Don't eat in the living room. Don't leave pet food out in the open. Store opened bags of dry pet food in sealed containers.
  3. Reduce clutter. This gives roaches fewer places to hide.
  4. Roaches are creatures of moisture; fixing leaky faucets, drains and roof areas often eliminates the problem.
  5. Dust boric acid powder in the areas they typically congregate: under sinks and behind the fridge and stove. Boric acid is deadly to roaches—and ants and silverfish—two different ways; it dries them out and poisons them directly.
  6. Put sticky traps under sinks, behind stoves and refrigerators, and in cabinets. "The more the better," says Dr. Quarles. "The traps will tell you where the roaches are hiding. Then clean up those areas; dry up any moisture and vacuum the area thoroughly. A Purdue University study found that sticky traps and vacuuming were just as effective as pesticide sprays."
  7. If you live in a row home or apartment and don't have pets or infants crawling around, lightly dust any cracks and crevices around the baseboards of common walls with boric acid powder. Boric acid has a low toxicity to humans and pets, but it's always best to be careful, so we don't advise its use where babies or dogs can get at it.
  8. Where babies and curious pets are present, "use a powerful vacuum cleaner as a pest control tool", urges Dr. Quarles. "Vacuum along baseboards and inside cabinets on a regular basis."
  9. Get pint-sized jars and put a little bit of bait in the bottom (water alone is good; or try something containing protein, like a few pieces of dry cat or dog food). Then smear some Vaseline around the INSIDE lip of the jar to prevent their getting back out again. (Roach Researcher Kunkel specified that you must use brand-name Vaseline; he says you can't depend on drug store generics to be slippery enough.)

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