Reviewed October 1993

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Using Pesticides Safely Around the Home

Mary Kroening
Division of Plant Sciences

Pet owners washing their dogs with flea and tick shampoo; custodians scrubbing bathroom fixtures with mold and mildew removal agents; lawn enthusiasts applying granular crabgrass preventers. What do all of these people have in common? They are using pesticides. To some, pesticides are used only to control insects, but this isn't exactly true.

Pesticides include any products that kill or repel pests. Pests include not only insects, but also certain animals, weedy plants, mildews, molds, bacteria and others. Therefore, products designed for use as disinfectants, toilet bowl cleaners, insect foggers and even pet flea collars are considered to be pesticides.

If you are unsure whether a particular product is a pesticide, check the package label for the Environmental Protection Agency registration number. The first set of numbers identifies the product's manufacturer, while the second set identifies the specific pesticide.

Pesticides can help us live better by protecting our health, improving our landscapes and keeping our living spaces clean. Yet, when used carelessly, they can pose a danger. A recent survey conducted by the American Association of Poison Control Centers indicated that there are more than 20,000 cases of pesticide poisoning reports per year. While 90 percent of these are minor, some do require medical attention. What is most alarming, is that about one-third of these cases involve children less than six years of age. While these statistics cover only those cases that are reported, there are countless others that are not brought to the attention of medical professionals.

The purpose of this guide is to discuss considerations of pesticide use in and around the home environment.

Effective pest control around homes and gardens depends on accurate identification of the problem, selection of an appropriate control agent, and use with due regard for safety. Effective pest control around homes and gardens depends on accurate identification of the problem, selection of an appropriate control agent, and use with due regard for safety.

Read the label Labeling on a pesticide package is the definitive source of information about what pests the product will control.

Pesticide selection

Are pesticides always necessary? Pesticides should be considered as a final line of defense against a pest outbreak. Put another way, they are only one tool in a large toolbox of other control measures. Often, nonchemical control methods will do an effective job in managing or preventing a pest problem.

Considering that thousands of products are classified as pesticides and sold through lawn and garden centers, hardware retailers and even grocery stores, how do you decide which one to use? Many pesticides are designed specifically to target only certain types of pests; this makes identification of the problem the critical first step in deciding to use a pesticide. Once the pest is properly identified, selection of a pesticide may be possible.

When you visit your retailer to purchase a pesticide for your pest problem, check product labels to see if your particular pest is listed as one that the product will control. The importance of reading the label can't be overemphasized. Never assume that a product will control a certain pest that is not listed on its label. For example, if you wish to control dandelions in your lawn, be sure that the product claims "dandelions" on its label. If it does not, the risk of the product failing falls upon you and not the retailer or the manufacturer of the product. In many instances, you may have more than one product choice to control your problem. If so, don't necessarily choose on the basis of cost alone, but also consider products that may be more environmentally friendly, less harmful to beneficial organisms, and perhaps easier to use.

When handling pesticides, keep in mind that they are all poisonous and do pose risks, at least to some degree. Most products intended for use in and around the home are formulated in low concentrations, many are sold ready-to-use because they are already diluted. Some of the same active ingredients that are found in home and garden products may also be available in more concentrated formulations and sold under different brand names for agricultural and industrial uses. Generally, most of these concentrated products are not listed as approved for home use; they are illegal to use in the home environment. Other products are only available to certain licensed pest control professionals because of their toxicity or environmental concerns. If you have a serious pest problem, such as a termite infestation, it is best to consult a professional. Professional pest control firms have the proper equipment and personnel who are specially trained, certified and licensed to handle these types of jobs.

For safety's sake, keep the following points in mind when using pesticides in an environment where children, wildlife and pets are also present:

  • Remove children's toys
  • Remove or cover pet food and water dishes.
  • Never place rodent baits where children, pets or wildlife will contact them.
  • Store all pesticides out of reach of children in their original containers. Pesticides stored in food or soft drink containers when seen by a child invites an accident as they associate the container with something sweet and certainly not something that can pose as a danger. It is also a misuse of a pesticide to do so and is thus illegal. Don't let children in your home become a statistic of the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Applying the correct amount

It may be human nature to believe that if a little is good, then a lot is better. Avoid this temptation when mixing and applying pesticides because heavier than necessary applications of pesticides can have negative consequences. Overdosing can cause harm to the environment, including runoff into surface and ground water, buildup of long-term residues, and damage to desirable plants and beneficial organisms. Applying pesticides at rates in excess of label directions is also considered to be a misuse of that product and thus is illegal. Finally, pesticides are not cheap; unnecessarily high application rates for any product are costly.

Many homeowner products require no additional mixing for liquid formulations. If mixing a concentrate with water is required, often the label will state the percentage desired concentration that should be achieved before application. Other liquid products may list their rates as an amount to apply per unit area. For most lawn-care products, this information will be given in terms per 1,000 square feet. Here it is important to have accurate dimensions of the area to be treated to ensure correct mixing of materials in the application equipment, usually in a hose-end or hand-pump sprayer. Many of the product labels for granular materials on today's market include a table stating the correct setting on popular granular lawn spreaders for accurate delivery of the product to the site. These settings vary depending on granule size and weight, which affect flow rate and distribution. Read label for proper settings.

Professional pest control applicators are trained, certified and licensed to use pesticides Professional pest control applicators are trained, certified and licensed to use pesticides that are unavailable to homeowners. Labeling on a pesticide package is the definitive source of information about what pests the product will control.

Protection from exposure

Pesticides may enter the body by several routes: by mouth, by inhalation and by absorption through the skin. Surveys have indicated that the vast majority of exposure victims have contacted pesticides through the skin. For this reason, most pesticides used in the home environment will provide specific directions on the label for skin protection, most notably gloves. Some labels will specify waterproof or chemical-resistant gloves; keep in mind that waterproof does not necessarily mean chemical- resistant. Glove materials of cotton, canvas or leather should be avoided when handling pesticides, because these tend to absorb and hold residues in contact with the skin. Some pesticide labels of products approved for use around the home may indicate that a long-sleeved shirt and full-length trousers or a pair of coveralls should be worn. If coveralls are the preferred garment, disposable one-piece suits are available in materials such as Tyvek™. Eye protection may also be necessary when using some products, particularly during the mixing process. If this is a requirement, face shields, protective goggles and safety glasses are all available. Never consider that regular eyeglasses for corrective vision will provide adequate protection. When the pesticide application task has been completed, wash with soapy water any reusable protective gear that was used. Finally, bathe thoroughly and change into clean clothing.

What do you do if you or someone else has symptoms such as dizziness, headache or nausea and you suspect that you or they have been exposed to pesticides? In these situations, don't take any chances; contact a medical professional and be ready to take the pesticide label with you to the clinic or emergency room. The label will include specific information that the medical professional can follow to provide remedial treatment. Missouri has a Regional Poison Control Center that is staffed 24 hours daily with medical professionals. The center is equipped to refer poisoning accident victims to a local poison control emergency facility. Missouri's facility is located and administered by Cardinal Glennon Memorial Hospital in St. Louis and may be reached by calling 800-366-8888.

Clothing that has been worn while handling pesticides should be laundered separately, especially if there are children within the household, and then line-dried. Clothing heavily soiled with pesticides should be discarded, because it will most likely never be entirely cleaned.

Sensitive environments

Sometimes, even when precautions have been taken, use of pesticides causes harm to some environmentally sensitive areas. Off-site movement of pesticides is of special concern during windy days or when heavy rainfall occurs immediately after an application. Keep in mind that inadvertent exposure to pesticides poses risks in areas around water sources, playgrounds, beehives and sensitive, nontarget vegetation such as food crops and ornamental plants. Use common sense and avoid making applications under windy conditions or if significant rainfall is in the current forecast. These conditions can serve as a direct conduit for damage from pesticide movement. If applications will be made to vegetable or fruit crops, be certain to check the product's label for the preharvest interval; that is, the amount of time that should elapse between pesticide application and harvesting the particular vegetable or fruit for consumption, freezing or canning. MU Extension does not recommend consumption of any fruit or vegetable that has been tainted with products that are not labeled for application to them.

The best storage practice for pesticides is to purchase only the amount needed to do the job. The best storage practice for pesticides is to purchase only the amount needed to do the job.

Storage and disposal

The best storage practice for pesticides is to purchase only the amount needed to do the job. Unfortunately, this guideline often is not practical. With so many home-use products available in ready-to-use formulations, they generally can be used up within a relatively short time. Consider purchasing these types of formulations rather than large quantities of concentrated priority, especially with these materials.

There are several options for safe disposal of pesticides. However, pouring them down drains, toilets or sewers or leaving them on the ground should never be considered. Putting unused pesticides in the trash is not environmentally friendly and is unacceptable to many people. The most viable option is to use them by applying them to an approved site for an approved use. If you don't have an immediate use for a product, there is a chance that someone else you know may. Another option is to hold them until a community household hazardous waste collection event is held.

Once a pesticide container is empty, make sure that it is thoroughly cleaned out. With liquid formulations, triple rinsing the container and adding the rinsate directly back into the sprayer as makeup solution is the best way to dispose of any residues. Do not rinse containers in a household sink, and do not pour rinsate down any drain. With bags and containers of dry formulations, thoroughly shake these directly onto the site or into the spreader. In most states, including Missouri, burning of any pesticide container is illegal and should not be considered as a disposal option for these containers. Under no circumstances should reuse of a pesticide container be considered for storage of any other substance than the original product.

Missouri Regional Poison Control Center 800-366-8888


G1918 Using Pesticides Safely Around the Home | University of Missouri Extension