Practicing pesticide safety

February is Pesticide Safety Education month.  Whether using a conventional chemicals or biorational chemicals, understanding how to use the product safely is universal.  No product is 100% safe.  Remember they are used to control, prevent, or kill pest organisms, so applicator and environmental safety should always be top priority when using pesticides.

There are basic steps to take when using any pesticide. These steps help minimize applicator exposure, negative impacts on the environment, as well as on non-target organisms.

Proper Identification

The very first thing before you apply any pesticides, is to properly identify the organism you are trying to control.  This goes for weeds, insects, or any thing you deem a ‘pest’.  It is particularly important with insects. There are many insects in the landscape that are beneficial as pollinators, detritivores, or natural pest control, and should be conserved – not destroyed. Proper insect identification will help you to protect those insects from inadvertent chemical sprays.

Product Selection

Selecting the right pesticide for the job is very important, but first, be sure a pesticide application is really the best option. Determine if there are other ways to remedy the problem without turning to pesticides. Can you trim off the infestation? Is over-watering or over-fertilizing the root cause of the insect infestation or plant disease? Will mulching help to eliminate the problem?

Signal Word

If a pesticide is needed, be sure to use the pesticide product with the lowest toxicity and that is determined by the ‘Signal Word’.  The signal word on a pesticide label is determined by the level of toxicity. The three categories, or levels, of toxicity are determined by their acute (within 24 hours of exposure) toxicity effects on humans though dermal (skin), oral (ingestion), or inhalation (breathing it in).  The three Signal Words are:

    • CAUTION – low to very low toxicity through dermal, oral, or inhalation.
      Pesticide signal word infographic
      [credit: NPIC]
    • WARNING – moderate toxicity if eaten, absorbed through the skin, or inhaled.
    • DANGER – highly toxic through at least one of the three routes of exposure (dermal, oral, or inhalation).

So, as you can see, products with the lowest toxicity have the “CAUTION” signal word or no signal word at all. If a pesticide is required, paying attention to the signal word will help in selecting the safest option available.

Did you know, signal words are not strictly for pesticides. Signal words are used on cleaning products as well. Next time you go to the store to purchase cleaning products or grab a product from your cleaning cabinet, check to see what signal word is on the label. That signal word will give you a good indication of the level of toxicity that product poses to you, the applicator.


The Label is the Law

There is a phrase “The label is the law’.

Pesticides are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and deem a pesticide is safe and effective as long as the label directions are followed. A pesticide label is a legally enforceable document and carries the statement:

It is a violation of Federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling

This, in a nutshell, makes it clear the label is the law.

Read the Label

Understanding what is in a label and reading the label prior to use is paramount.  The pesticide label provides detailed information that, when followed, is effective and safe to the applicator.

The main parts of a pesticide label provide information on:

Pesticide label.
[credit: Flickr]
  • The common and trade name of the product
  • Ingredients statement
  • The EPA registration number
  • The signal word
  • Precautionary statement
    • Environmental Hazards
    • Bee caution
  • First aid
  • Environmental statement
  • Directions for use
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
  • Storage and disposal

Additional information is on the label, but the sections mentioned above will help an applicator use that product in the manner it was intended – safely and effectively.

It is also important to read the label before use, no matter how many times you have used that pesticide for a couple of reasons. First, it helps to remind you how to safely use the product, but also, the labels can change at any time, so a new bottle of the same product previously used can have an updated label.  The EPA is required to review registered pesticides at least every 15 years and the label updated as necessary.  However, the manufacturer can update the label more frequently if there is new information available for that pesticide product. So, stay safe and read the label before using a pesticide.

Safe Storage and Disposal

Pesticides should always be stored in a secure area and away from common household products. They should never be stored where a child could get access to it. Pesticides should always be stored in their original container and never (ever!) transferred into an emptied food container such as a Gatorade bottle or milk/juice jug. According to the EPA, children under the age of 6 account for 50% of the 2 million poisoning each year with 90% of these happening within the home. So, the utmost precaution should always be taken with pesticides, but particularly in respect to safeguarding children from access and exposure to pesticides.

Dispose of the pesticide bottle according to the label directions. Empty containers should always be punctured or cut so that they cannot be reused. The label will state if that empty container can be recycled, if it needs to go into the trash, or even disposed of as hazardous waste.

Safety First

The top priority for anyone using pesticides should be safety first which means always using the product according to the label instructions. Having the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is only one part of practicing safe pesticide use. The PPE on the label is the minimum requirement for using that product and additional safety equipment can be used. Safety should be practiced every step of the way – from purchase to disposal.

PPE: gloves for pesticide applications. [credit: Flickr]
Tips for practicing pesticide safety – from the start to the finish:

  • Pick the right product for the job.
  • Always think about the safety of children and pets before using any product.
  • Think about the safety and impact the product could pose to the environment.
  • Always read and follow label instructions.
  • Use the correct personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Be prepared- know who to call if an accidental exposure happens or what to do if a pesticide spill happens.
  • Keep pesticides stored in a secured and safe place out of the reach of children.
  • Never use food containers for pesticides!
  • Properly dispose of outdated pesticides or empty pesticides containers according to the label.


Links to additional pesticide safety resources:



Carol Wyatt Evens Profile Image
Posted: February 1, 2023

Category: Home Landscapes, Lawn, Pests & Disease, Work & Life
Tags: Biorational, Environment, Horticulture, Landscape, Pest, Pesticide, Pesticides, Pgm_Chemicals, Polinator, Pollinators

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