Pesticides are chemicals used to kill, repel, or control organisms which are considered pests. Pesticides include insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, disinfectants, and many other targeted products. Pesticides are an excellent tool if used correctly but can be hazardous to people and the environment. Follow precautions and instructions carefully and gather the proper protective equipment to ensure the safe and appropriate use of these products.
Read the Label
Safe pesticide use begins with reading the label. Pesticide labeling provides instructions on how to use the product safely and correctly. As required by law, pesticide users must comply with the directions outlined on the pesticide label. An understanding of the label components is vital to follow these essential instructions. (Fig. 1) The pesticide label provides instructions on using, storing, and disposing of the product safely and correctly. It also lists precautions to take when using the product, along with physical, chemical, and environmental hazards. Always read the label in its entirety before using any pesticide product to ensure safety during the preparation, application, and cleanup process.
Photo of a pesticide label, with arrows pointing to the following components: Brand name, ingredient statement (includes active ingredients, common names, chemical names), signal word (caution, warning, danger, danger/poison), directions for use (how to use product, when to apply, and restrictions), storage and disposal, precautionary statements (e.g., “Hazards to humans and domestic animals”), first aid statement, environmental hazards (e.g., This product is toxic to aquatic organisms), and EPA registration number.
Note Signal Words
The signal word – DANGER/POISON, DANGER, WARNING, or CAUTION must appear in large capital letters on the front panel of a pesticide label. The signal word indicates how toxic a pesticide is to humans. The least toxic products carry the signal word CAUTION. Products with the signal word WARNING on the label are more toxic, following that is DANGER. The most toxic pesticides have the signal word DANGER/POISON on their labels. Signal words do not indicate the potential for environmental harm.
Wear Protective Equipment & Clothing
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is clothing and devices worn to protect people from contact with pesticides and pesticide residues. Exposure to pesticides can be harmful and following all PPE instructions on the pesticide label is legally required. Always wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, close-toed shoes and socks, a wide-brimmed plastic hat (for pesticide exposure from above), and chemical-resistant gloves when handling pesticides (Fig. 2). Wear splash-resistant goggles or shielded safety glasses when the label indicates eye protection is required. Protective eyewear can also prevent splash-back from getting in the eyes when mixing and pouring pesticides. Glasses for correcting vision or sunglasses are not protective. The label may indicate different PPE for different tasks (e.g., mixing, loading, applying)
When selecting protective clothing, keep in mind that canvas and leather are difficult to clean and readily absorb pesticide spills. Chemical-resistant materials like barrier-laminate or nitrile gloves and rubber boots are preferred. The hands are the most likely route of exposure. Pesticide contamination often happens when people remove their gloves to open a container, wipe away sweat, adjust their equipment, etc. After handling pesticides, always wash your gloves thoroughly BEFORE taking them off. It is also good to place sleeves outside of gloves and put pant legs outside the boots so the pesticide will not travel down arms or legs and collect in the PPE. Always make sure PPE is new or freshly cleaned before wearing.
Wear a mask while in enclosed areas, when the pesticide label says, “do not breathe vapors or spray mist”, or if there will be long-term exposure to pesticides near the nose and mouth. This recommendation applies even when labeling does not require the applicator to wear a respiratory protective device. Several different types of respirators are available. The appropriate device will be indicated on the label and is dependent on the pesticide type.
Mix Pesticides Carefully
Many general-use pesticides commonly found at home improvement stores are ready-to-use formulas and do not require mixing. However, some are concentrates and require mixing or dilution before use. Pesticide exposure often occurs when mixing or loading concentrated pesticides. Take extra care when handling concentrates, avoiding the risk of accidental poisoning. Reduce the risk of exposure by taking a few simple precautions:
1.) Select an appropriate mixing site
Mix pesticides outdoors in a well-lit, well-ventilated area away from other people (especially children, the elderly, and pregnant women), animals, and food or household items that may become contaminated. Do not mix in areas where a spill could contaminate water systems like lakes, streams, or ponds.
2.) Work deliberately
- When you open a pesticide container you risk exposing yourself, and potentially others, to the concentrated product. Close the cap on containers when you are finished and do not leave containers unattended while applying pesticides.
- Keep a separate set of tools used only for mixing and applying pesticides. These include measuring spoons and cups and stirring paddles. Use plastic or metal items, not glass or wood and mix only the amount of pesticide necessary and use all of the mixed pesticide on label-approved sites.
- Ensure application equipment (hand-held sprayers, shake cans, etc.) are clean and undamaged before use.
3.) Protect water sources
Concentrated pesticide mixtures often need to be diluted with fresh water. Protect the water source by keeping the hose or faucet above the level of the pesticide mixture. Pre-measure the water with a liquid measuring cup or pitcher and double-check to ensure the calculations are correct.
4.) Wear appropriate PPE
Read the pesticide label and put on all required equipment BEFORE opening the pesticide container. Consider wearing protective eyewear to protect eyes from splash-back when pouring, even if not specified on the label.
5.) Be ready for spills
- Many products have spill cleanup instructions on the label. Read the label first.
- Keep additional PPE nearby for protection during the cleanup process.
- Keep a spill cleanup kit on hand that includes absorbent materials such as cat litter (best), sawdust, or sweeping compound are essential to the spill kit. Spread absorbent materials on the spill, then sweep them up and put them into a heavy-duty plastic bag. Use diluted bleach or detergent to clean the contaminated area. Do not wash down spills with water and take care to prevent pesticides from entering any body of water.
- Properly dispose of any tools used to clean up the spill, including the broom. Place these cleanup materials into a heavy-duty plastic bag and securely seal and dispose of them in the household trash.
- If pesticide splashes or spills onto skin or clothing while mixing, stop immediately and wash contaminated gloves. Remove contaminated clothing, shower as soon as possible, put on clean PPE, and clean up the spill.
6.) Be prepared for emergencies
Keep clean water, dish soap, and paper towels nearby to flush skin or eyes in the event of accidental exposure. Always wash gloves before removing them. Keep a clean change of clothes nearby in case of a spill.
Apply Pesticides Safely
After taking the precautions provided and applying a pesticide, ensure safe and proper pesticide application by following the steps below.
1.) Only use pesticides in the places and for the pests as stated on the label.
The pesticide label states where and on what pests the pesticide is allowed for use. For example, some pesticides may be used on lawns but not in vegetable gardens. Many pesticides may be used outdoors, but not indoors. Failing to follow the label as written violates federal law and could result in serious injury or death to the applicator and those coming in contact with the pesticide application.
2.) Apply pesticide at the concentration and rate indicated on the label.
Failure to do so is unlawful and may lead to unintended environmental effects and pesticide resistance development.
3.) Be aware of your surroundings.
- Do not apply pesticides during windy conditions, after recent rainfall, or when rain is forecast.
- Never eat or drink when applying pesticides.
- Always keep people, especially children and pets, away from the treatment area.
- Do not walk through recently treated areas to avoid tracking pesticides through the yard and indoors (Fig. 3).
4.) Clean up correctly.
- Clean pesticide mixing and application equipment immediately after use while wearing the proper PPE.
- Store pesticides in a locked room or cabinet where children cannot access them. Store pesticides separately from paints, solvents, and fuels, especially gasoline. Place pesticide containers in nonabsorbent plastic trays or pans for organization, to avoid falls and breaks, and to collect leaked pesticides. Write the opened date on the pesticide container.
- After using all the pesticide, follow the label directions for proper empty container disposal. When rinsing containers, put the rinse water into the pesticide sprayer and apply it to a labeled target site. To dispose of unused pesticide, follow the label directions. Read more about pesticide waste disposal.
- Always shower immediately after applying pesticides. Wash hair, ears, hands, and forearms well. Scrub under fingernails especially well.
Remember to read and follow the label directions. From the time the pesticide container is opened until the proper disposal of the empty container, the applicator is responsible for protecting themselves, others, and the environment.