Pesticides used around the house to keep harmful critters at bay are, for the most part, safer than they’ve been in the past. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that some organophosphates and carbamates, extremely harmful neurotoxins, are being phased out of home pesticides because of widespread concerns about their impact on people, especially infants and children. Even so, these and other toxins remain in many common products (they are also applied on food crops worldwide). To reduce your exposure, start with these three items.

1. Flea collars

Risks: Contain highly toxic organophosphates from the same family as nerve gas. Natural alternatives: Vacuum often, groom your animal with a flea comb, and give regular baths. Try natural flea repellents with concentrated essential oils of cedar wood, lemongrass, peppermint, rosemary, and thyme. Less-hazardous topical products contain ingredients such as S-methoprene, pyriproxyfen, or imidacloprid (toxicity is still possible, so watch for allergic reactions). Go to greenpaws.org for a list of flea-collar substitutes.

2. In-home bug sprays by the numbers

$6.3 billion Amount spent on pesticides in the United States in 1982

$11.1 billionAmount spent in 2001

19 Percent of U.S. pesticide expenditures devoted to home and garden use in 2001

480 million Total pounds of pesticides applied to U.S. crops in 2007

Source: Environmental Protection Agency (epa.gov)

Risks: Many contain pyrethrins, derived from chrysanthemums, or synthetic versions called pyrethroids. Long-term effects remain unclear, but the EPA notes that pyrethrins and pyrethroids in runoff pose hazards to aquatic life. Natural alternatives: Vacuum regularly and seal up potential entryways. Use vinegar to deter bugs, or try fly traps, bait boxes, and insecticidal soaps with fewer (or more contained) toxins. Go to beyondpesticides.org to find a professional pest management company trained in nontoxic methods.

3. Lice treatments

Risks: Contain the organophosphates malathion and lindane, plus pyrethroids—all applied directly to the scalp. Natural alternatives: Smother lice with a toxin-free mixture: Combine mayonnaise, olive oil, or coconut oil with a few drops of essential oil (tea tree, eucalyptus), mix in a capful of shampoo, and thoroughly coat scalp and hair. Cover tightly with a plastic shower or bathing cap for one hour; then wash two or three times in hot (not scalding) water. Rinse with vinegar, and comb with a lice-specific comb. Or try a nontoxic lice shampoo, such as certified organic Safe Trap (safetrap.com).