It’s the height of tomato season right now, and I’m tending to three gardens this summer – my little backyard garden, a community garden plot and the Farm Bureau corporate garden for the United Way of Central Iowa.

I do a lot of gardening after work before dusk, when the mosquitoes start biting. I used to have a “who cares?” mentality and endure the mosquito bites because I hated spraying myself with DEET bug spray. The idea of having a chemical on my skin creeped me out more than the mosquitoes.

However, my opinion about chemicals has shifted. A couple summers ago, when I was in the first trimester of pregnancy, I pulled weeds from our yard while wearing yoga pants, which I quickly discovered weren’t mosquito proof. I had a dozen itchy red welts up and down my hips that lasted for days.

Fast forward to the third trimester, and I started seeing news stories about the mosquito-borne Zika virus in South America. In my hormonal state, I cried when I saw images of the Zika-affected babies born with micro-encephalopathy.

That was the moment when I realized that my fear of a common, life-saving chemical could have put my baby at risk.

Granted, the mosquitoes that carry the virus are relatively rare in Iowa. However, when I talked to an Iowa State University entomologist for an informational article on Zika last summer, he reminded me that West Nile Virus, another mosquito-spread disease, continues to be a potentially fatal illness here in Iowa. The very young and elderly are particularly at risk for serious illness from the West Nile Virus.

Now I always spray myself with a DEET bug spray before working in the garden, and I won’t hesitate to use insect repellent on my daughter when she’s old enough to help me.

As a gardener, I know that “chemicals” – such as pesticides and crop-protection products – are a necessity in growing safe, healthy food. Without pesticides, farmers would lose a significant portion of their food crops, which leads to food waste  and rising costs at the grocery store.

In addition, all pesticides approved by the Environmental Protection Agency are rigorously tested to prove their safety to human health and the environment. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also tests our food to ensure that pesticide residues don’t exceed a safe level.

Plus, experts agree that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh the small risk from pesticide residues.

The same goes for DEET bug repellents. I’ve decided that the benefit of keeping my family safe from a severe mosquito-borne illness outweighs the risk from a bug spray that I can wash off after I’m finished gardening.

As a side benefit, I sure appreciate not itching at mosquito bites all summer long. I’ve only had one mosquito bite this year, and I plan to keep it that way. If you’re wondering, I’ve also given up the yoga plants and now wear old jeans in the garden.