The word “pesticide” usually gets two distinctly different reactions from people. Some think of pesticides as useful tools gardeners can use to create a lovely, pest-free environment. Others cringe with fear at the idea of using something toxic on their plants. (One thing to note is that many naturally-derived garden products are also toxic — so be sure to read the labels on any such control product.)

Pesticide label

Some pesticide labels come both on the package and as an accompanying booklet. This enables manufacturers to include all the information necessary for proper use. It’s a good idea to keep the booklet label with the product for future reference.

Photo Credit: Daniel Overcash

Pesticide gloves

Labels specify the types of personal protection devices required for application to ensure the handler’s safety. These rubber gloves are impermeable and should only be used for pesticide application — not dishwashing or housecleaning.

Photo Credit: Daniel Overcash

Before we get too far, let’s define what a pesticide is. A pesticide is any chemical material used to control or destroy unwanted insects, weeds, diseases or rodents. The fear of pesticides based on safety concerns is somewhat misplaced given the advancements in research and stringent regulations that must be met before a new chemical is allowed in the market. The days of using DDT and arsenic are over. It takes nearly 10 years to bring a pesticide to market because of all the testing and research required to make sure that, if used properly, the chemical won’t cause damage to the handler or the environment. With that said, all pesticides should be treated with respect to ensure no harm is caused through misuse. Safety for applicators, consumers and the environment is at the forefront of any conversation about pesticide use.

With that in mind, the most important safety tip for applying pesticides is – and I can’t say this enough – read the label. Yes, it’s in small print. And yes, it looks like a lot of information. But all the information that’s needed for proper application is found on the label:

  • Pests: What pest(s) the product will control.
  • Plants: What plants it can be used on. Be careful with this; for example, some products can be used to control aphids on roses but not aphids on tomatoes.
  • Rate: How much to apply. Do not use a higher rate than the label calls for.
  • Frequency: How often to apply. One application may kill the adults, but not the eggs. A repeat application may be needed at a certain interval to kill the next generation.
  • Re-entry Statement: After application, you must leave the area for a period of time until it is safe to re-enter.
  • Storage and Disposal: How to store the product and how to dispose of the container after use.
  • Active ingredient and antidote: Vital information to know in the event of accidental exposure/ingestion.
  • Personal Protection Devices (PPD): Appropriate safety gear required, including gloves, respirators or long sleeves.

After reading the entire label, you should have a good understanding of how to use the chemical correctly and safely. However, here are a few more general safety guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Watch your pets. Don’t apply a pesticide around your pet’s food bowl, and don’t apply it in an area where they play unless it’s specifically allowed on the label.
  • Watch your children. Keep all pesticides out of the reach of any kids.
  • Watch for drift. Drift is the off-target movement of a pesticide by wind or rain. As a rule, don’t spray pesticides if it’s windy because it has the potential to blow onto non-target plants and cause damage.
  • Watch your hands. Keep hands away from your mouth when using pesticides (no smoking or eating). Wash them with warm, soapy water when finished with any applications.
  • Watch your clothes. Change clothes after any application if they’re exposed to any pesticides.

If the unthinkable happens and some pesticide is ingested, first get the label and identify the chemical(s) it contains and the antidote needed. Second, call 9-1-1 or your local poison control and tell them which chemical is involved.

Some people believe using any chemical as a pesticide is wrong, but many recognize it as a useful garden tool. When used correctly, pesticides can provide us the opportunity to grow healthy, bountiful, beautiful gardens.