Pesticide Safety for Homeowners

— Written By and last updated by

The following information has been adapted from an article written by Keith Delaplane, an Extension entomologist from University of Georgia Extension.

Now that a lot of us are having to stay home and it’s spring, this is the perfect time to get out and work in your yard, garden and flower beds. Weeds, insects, and plant diseases are all challenges that can come up and sometimes chemicals are your best option to help combat these issues. A pesticide is a product, usually a chemical, designed to kill organisms – insecticides (insects), herbicides (weeds), fungicides (fungus), and bactericides (bacteria). For the best results, and safe and effective use, it is important to always follow label directions and safety precautions.

Chemical pesticides are not the only way to limit pests. In fact, some pest problems can be solved entirely with non-chemical controls. First, you have to determine if a pest problem truly exists. Most insects, plants, and microorganisms on your property are harmless. If you see a suspicious insect or plant on your property, you can ask the Extension agents with N.C. Cooperative Extension in Hoke County to help you identify the problem and decide whether it warrants control. The key is to properly identify the pest in order to select the best control method. For insects and rodents around your house and buildings, basic sanitation and tidying up can help. Lush gardens can harbor many insects, weeds, and plant disease microorganisms, but some of these pests can be limited with non-chemical means. If pests reach damaging levels in spite of your non-chemical means, chemical pesticides may be justified to reduce the pest population to non-damaging levels. One thing to keep in mind is that no matter what you do, it is unlikely that you will completely eliminate a pest. Your goal should be to decrease the pest population to non-damaging levels. In some pest situations a professional who is a licensed pesticide applicator may be needed.

It is extremely important to remember that, when it comes to pesticide usage, the label is the law! You are required to ready and follow the label. The pesticide label gives you all the information you need to safely, effectively, and legally use the product. The instructions are there to ensure your safety and that you get the best results. Label information will usually include: the chemical name (a long name of the active chemical ingredient), the common name (a shorter name for the pesticide), the brand name (the name used in advertisements), the formulation (the form of the product – liquid, wettable powder, dust), the name and address of the manufacturer, and signal words (these indicate the potential for hazard of the product to humans).

Signal Word Toxicity Amount that would kill an average adult
Danger Highly toxic A taste to 1 teaspoon
Warning Moderately toxic 1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons
Caution Fairly low toxicity 1 ounce to more than 1 pint

The precautionary statement is a description of how the product is hazardous to humans and animals; includes measures you can take (such as wearing personal protective clothing and equipment) to reduce exposure. This sometimes gives instructions to physicians for proper treatment if you are exposed. The statement of practical treatment describes emergency first-aid measures. Directions for use tells you the pests the product is registered to control, sites where the product can be used, in what form the product can be applied, how much to use, and when and where the product can be applied. For example a fungicide that is labeled for applications to turfgrass and some ornamental plants but it is not labeled for use in vegetables. Be sure to get a product that is labeled for both the pest and site you wish to treat. The misuse statement is a reminder that it is illegal to use the product in a manner inconsistent with the label. If a little does the job, a lot will not do better!

It is important to handle pesticides safely from purchase to disposal. Follow the guidelines on the label when using a chemical pesticide. Be sure to read the label before you purchase the product to be sure it is labeled for the pest and site you want to treat. Based on the signal words, try to select the safest product available. Read the entire label before using the pesticide and follow all the instructions. Observe all safety precautions on the label. Wear protective clothing, especially what’s specified on the label. Never eat, drink, smoke, or use the bathroom while handling pesticides. If you do any of these things wash your hands first! Mixing or diluting the pesticide is often the most dangerous step because you are being exposed to the most concentrated form of the pesticide so if you must do this do so in a well ventilated space with the proper personal protective equipment. Also, only mix the amount you need for the current job; don’t mix a large batch and store it for later use. Avoid mixing and applying pesticides near wells or open water sources.

Chemical pesticides cannot be stored in the same way as other household items so be sure to follow these precautions. Do not store pesticides near food, seed, animals, or flammable materials. Store pesticides in a secure location out of reach of children, unauthorized people, pets, and other animals. This location should be dry, cool, well ventilated and out of direct sunlight. It’s best to store pesticides in their original container but if you must transfer it to a different one, be sure to also transfer the label. Never store pesticides in an old food or drink container because someone may mistake it for something edible.

Empty pesticide containers are considered hazardous waste unless they are properly processed. To properly dispose of the containers start by rinsing each container at least three times, adding the diluted solution to your spray tank and then apply that to the labeled site. Punch holes at the bottom of the containers and remove any label booklets. Each of the five trash convenience sites located throughout the county have pesticide container recycling sites and will accept properly rinsed and prepared containers.

If an accidental spill occurs keep the following in mind. If a pesticide is spilled on someone, wash it off at once and give the correct first aid as indicated on the label. Avoid hosing down the area as this will only spread the pesticide. Try to contain and absorb the spill with sawdust, kitty litter, or soil. Put the contaminated material in a garbage bag and properly dispose of the garbage bag. Most importantly, keep children and pets out of the area until the entire spill is properly cleaned up.

Most pesticides that are available to homeowners have fairly low toxicity to humans. As mentioned earlier, the greatest risk for exposure is during mixing and diluting because you are dealing with the most concentrated form of the product. Symptoms of pesticide poisoning include headache, dizziness, restlessness, skin irritation, nausea, diarrhea, trembling, rapid pulse, fever, vomiting, pinpoint pupils, convulsions, unconsciousness, and death. Early symptoms of pesticide poisoning can easily be mistaken for symptoms of other illnesses so if you suspect you or someone else has been poisoned be sure to tell the physician and have the product label with you as reference for the medical personnel. If someone is exposed, applying the proper first-aid depends somewhat on the way the pesticide entered the body. If the exposure was through the skin, remove any contaminated clothing, rinse skin with warm water and wash with soap and continue to rinse for 15 to 20 minutes. If the pesticide gets in the eyes, hold eyelids open and gently rinse with running water for 15 to 20 minutes and be sure to turn your head to the water that is rinsing the contaminated eye is not then running into the other eye. For inhalation exposure, get the victim to fresh air. If the pesticide is swallowed never induce vomiting. Follow the instructions on the label and immediately call 911. You can contact the American Association of Poison Control Centers 24 hours a day at 1-800-222-1222 for further information on how to treat exposures.

For more information about the safe handling of pesticides, properly identifying pests, and any other information mentioned here, please contact Liz Lahti with N.C. Cooperative Extension, Hoke County Center at liz_lahti@ncsu.edu or on her cell phone, 914-489-5330.