Environment, Health and Safety Online
The site for free, objective information you can use! Search the site
Data: Search EPA databases
Having a problem with ants in your home. Want to get rid of them, but don't want to use pesticides that might hurt your or your family? Nuisance ants such as sweet ants, generally nest in the soil and enter houses in search of food or water. Carpenter ants nest in cavities that are sometimes carved out of our homes, like termites. Carpenter ants generally forage outside for food whereas nuisance ants sometimes forage inside our homes, especially when the weather is extremely, such as very dry or very wet. Nuisance ants generally do little or no structural damage whereas carpenter ants can do substantial damage to the structure over time. Carpenter ants are generally larger and more robust than sweet ants, which are usually small and black in color.
You are right to be concerned about the application of pesticides inside your home especially, if you have small children or a baby. Because babies spend so much of their time on the floor, they are significantly smaller than adults, and tend to put their hands and other objects in their mouths, they are at a higher risk for ingesting sufficient pesticides residue to cause adverse affects.
Fortunately, ants are one of those pests for which pesticides might be used as an absolute last resort. Depending on the type of ant that is infiltrating your home, there are many non-toxic alternatives which you can try first. One thing to bear to mind, ants are coming into your home because they have detected a food source. The first step in eliminating your ant problem lies in identifying the food source that they are attracted to. If you can identify the source, try removing it altogether, or at least sealing it in a container that would prevent the odor from escaping. The second step in eliminating ants is identifying their nest location and the path they take from their nest to their food source. Unlike many pests, ants do follow a regular trail, so it is important that you find it as part of the elimination process. The final elimination step consists of either repelling the ants or actually killing them. Repelling them does not guarantee that they won't find another route to their food source, but killing them does not guarantee that another ant colony won't discover the source later. This is the case whether you use chemical pesticides or natural alternatives.
Ants can be repelled by vinegar, cayenne pepper, citric extracts, bone meal, cinnamon, cream of tartar, salt, and perfume. You will have to keep trying different repellents to find the one your ants aren't willing to tolerate. Place lines of the selected repellent at points of entry and at various points along their path.
There are two ways to kill ants. The first is to dehydrate them by laying out piles of instant grits ( a corn product usually located in the cereal section of the grocery store) at the point of entry and along their trail. They will think of the grits as a food source and consume the pellets. The grits will in turn absorb moisture from the ant's body, thus killing it (instant grits are specially formulated to absorb water more rapidly that regular grits, thus they are more effective). The second method to kill ants is to feed them a mixture of 1 part active dry yeast, 2 parts molasses, and 1 part sugar. They will be attracted to the sugar in the mixture and will eat it readily. Once consumed the yeast will produce gas in the ant, and because they can't expel the gas, it will kill them.
Another method of elimination involves the elimination of the nest. If you can find the nest, you can try pouring boiling water over the nest. If that isn't sufficient, you can try adding cayenne pepper to the boiling water, or using citrus extracts. If you have multiple nests, you could dig up a bucket of ants from one nest and dump it on another nest. Ants are very territorial, and they will readily hunt and kill invading colonies.
Finally, if you make way through these alternatives and have not found relief from your ant problem, call in an exterminator. Let the applicator know that you have a small child. Before selecting an exterminating company, ask what products they propose using ask to see Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) on the proposed products. If you are not comfortable with the information provided on the MSDS, contact the NIEHS Office of Communications (919-541-3345) with a list of the active chemical ingredients (we need the actual chemicals - we only have a limited ability to track down brand names). We have a number of resources to which we can turn for pesticide information. If we can find references for the active ingredients, we will provide that information to you.