Where to Draw The Line on Home Remedies

On Tuesday Holly posted an extremely interesting article about how Bounce could help control fungus gnats.  Then one of our frequent commenters (and all around great guy) Ray Eckhart pointed out that he has a problem with promulgating an off-label use of a product.  And that got me to thinking.  What household products is it OK for us to suggest that a consumer use for a non-labeled purpose, and what products shouldn’t we suggest?  This is a question that has haunted me for a long time, so with this post I want to give you my line of thinking – I’m not trying to tell you what’s right or wrong – just trying to let you know my thoughts on the topic.

First of all, let’s admit that there are off-label uses of products which most of us hardly think about and simply accept as “generally OK.”  For example, I have never been taken to task for suggesting using a plastic bag for protecting fruit from insects or for suggesting that dish washing detergent may be a good insecticide.  Of course both of these pest control techniques have their drawbacks (it can get hot in the bags in the South, injuring fruit, and insecticidal soap can burn the foliage of sensitive leaves) still, using these products outside of their labeling doesn’t seem to bother people too much.  Likewise, the idea of using alcohol to stunt plant growth, eggshells to stop slugs, or milk to control plant disease doesn’t seem to upset people too badly (whether they work or not being beside the point).

But there are some off-label uses of products which could be considered obviously bad.  For example, controlling weeds by dumping gasoline on them and setting them on fire, or perhaps washing your ripe fruit in a cup of paint thinner.

Then there are the off-label uses of products such as mouthwash for plant disease and tobacco juice for insects.  I see these as neither obviously fine nor obviously terrible.  So where is the line to be drawn?

In my opinion, as an extension educator, I feel that it is my job to tell my audience (That’s you guys!) the facts about different gardening/growing techniques including those that are “off-label.”  I don’t feel that it’s my job to tell you what to do and what not to do (well…maybe with the exception of telling you not to pour gasoline on your weeds and light them on fire or not to soak your food in paint thinner!)  It is up to you to make your own decisions.

Let’s go through a “for-instance” here.  And let’s use one that I’ve written about – using hot peppers as an insecticidal spray.  Hot pepper sprays can work to control certain insects.  Just mix up a few hot peppers with some water, add some dish detergent, put it into a spray bottle, and off you go.  I have used sprays like this myself in small experiments to control mites, and they have worked reasonably well.  I have also read a number of articles showing that these sprays have at least some effect on certain pest insects.  But hot peppers certainly aren’t “labeled” for use against insects, and let me tell you, a little hot pepper in the eyes, or even the skin, and you can be in pain for hours.  Long term damage is unlikely – but not impossible.  So what should I, as an extension educator, do?  In my opinion exactly what I just did – give you the facts and let you make your own decisions.  I feel exactly the same way about Holly’s post about Bounce – she gave you the facts – if you want to try using Bounce to control something then that’s up to you.  Do I recommend Bounce for controlling insects?  No.  But I’m the kind of person who encourages careful experimentation, so I wouldn’t tell you not to use Bounce to try to control insects either – though I would tell you to be very careful and that unintended consequences might arise.

10 thoughts on “Where to Draw The Line on Home Remedies”

  1. I can tell this will be a topic of great interest, if only among us professorial types! I’ve asked our pesticide coordinator Catherine Daniels to take a look at this and Holly’s posting for her opinion. She manages a lot of the liability issues that universities face with pesticide information – and there are potential liabilities associated with recommending products for pesticidal use (I just don’t know what they are). I hope she will either post a comment or even better submit a visiting professor posting.

  2. I know Ray’s intent is good. However, suggesting we can’t even talk about using a dryer sheet being placed near plants without thorough scientific testing and an MSDS sheet strikes me as patronizing and defies common sense. Nothing wrong with presenting thought provoking new research.

  3. Did anyone read the actual article? Thanks for putting it up, Linda. As I’ve commented on the post, I was simply presenting an interesting study – one that we could all kind of relate to. I did not make any recommendations as to use, nor did the researchers!! They just reported the results of their study. Dang, folks!

  4. Holly, I think everyone is seeing (including us) the fine line that we GPs walk between reporting science and making recommendations (and much of it may be perceptions rather than reality). I know that information I present at seminars could be taken out of context to suggest actual recommendation of products, regardless of the intent behind discussing the science I’m still hoping to have our pesticide coordinator weigh in with her opinion relevant to Washington state.

  5. I think Holly’s Bounce post was great, also a very interesting study. Research (and posts) like this for me also address another aspect I regard as important: Too many snake oil salesmen and self-appointed gardening experts out there. So I generally appreciate very much if scientists follow up on anecdotal info and asserted effects with real research (and post about it). I say “Way to go!” – we need more of this.

  6. I’ve enjoyed reading the science-based information on your site. Keep up the good work. As regards home remedies, that is slippery slope, both legally and morally. Having a written definition of what you will or will not accept is helpful, especially if done in advance. Then you can be sure of being consistent and deliberate at least. There are both state and federal laws regarding pesticides, and state laws do vary. The most important thing is to know your state’s interpretation of those laws and to be mindful that with a blog you may be talking to people in state’s where laws are interpreted differently. I mention that for your legal protection. For example, in Washington State, if you talk to a user group (such as the public), and discuss the ways to use a material as a pesticide, it becomes a de facto pesticide recommendation. A legally-liable recommendation. When a researcher publishes information in a journal it’s not directed at a user audience so is not considered a recommendation by the author. If you take it to the public, at least here, it becomes a recommendation you made, unless you insert certain disclaimers. It’s always attractive to try and “help” the public find some easier, faster, cheaper solution to a pest problem. With pesticides and the public, you offer a better service directing them to a tested material which is registered and has a consistent concentration from batch to batch. Having personal safety and storage instructions is important…things that are missing in make-it-yourself squirt bottle solutions. Home remedies encourage people to think that the solution is “safe” (for people, not pests) because it’s made out of everyday ingredients. But as we know, the dose makes the poison. Nicotine is a nerve poison which you wouldn’t want a child to come into contact with accidentally because the squirt bottle wasn’t labelled or put in a safe place. I agree that our role is to educate, not police household cupboards or public pesticide use patterns. But by the same token, because we (educators)are trained to look at the big picture, there are good reasons to consider sticking to a label. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  7. Home remedies are safe.But your article suggest that without any scientific research it is not better to use this kind of articles regularly.Thanks for sharing this news.

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