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What is a pesticide?

“Pesticide” can refer to any substance used to control or prevent pests, including weeds, insects, rodents, fungus, and more. (Herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides are all pesticides.) Included are common household products used to control ants, mice, and spiders. Products used to control dandelions and other weeds, as well as pests like wasps and mosquitoes and even fleas on pets.

Why do we use pesticides?

Pesticides help protect us from diseases carried by insects (like West Nile virus and Lyme disease). Weeds such as poison ivy and poison oak are harmful to people. Other weeds are harmful to livestock. Weeds also attract stinging insects and cause cracking and breaking of concrete, making sidewalks difficult to use and increasing repair costs.

Controlling weeds and insects helps keeps our homes pest-free and our lawns, parks, and other outdoor spaces usable. A recent ban of cosmetic use of pesticides in Canada has led to more expensive road maintenance needs and the degradation of sidewalks and playgrounds as uncontrolled weeds crack and break-up concrete and blacktop. Many weeds also trigger allergic reactions.

In agriculture, pesticides are used to protect crops from damage and diseases. Insects spread diseases and damage fruits and vegetables. When an insect takes a bit out of a plant, the wound is open to infection.

Weeds compete with plants for water, nutrients and sunlight.

Who regulates pesticides and their use? How much testing is done before they are available to the public?

No pesticide can be sold until it passes at least 120 different tests and is registered by the EPA. This process can take ten years to complete. The potential for human health and environmental impact is rigorously tested. If new concerns are raised, the EPA can require more tests at any time. More details about the EPA’s testing process are available on the agency web site.

How do I use pesticides safely?

The label is the law. Read and follow instructions to ensure safe use and effective pest control.

The first step in safe and effective pest control is to accurately identify the pest. Choose right and use right by following these steps:

  • Identify the problem. Resources such as the National Pest Management Associations' pest gallery can be helpful.
  • Select the right product: Choose a product that is designed to control the specific pest you are targeting. Read the label. Contact your county office of WSU extension or ask a nursery professional.
  • Keep people and pets out of the area until the product dries. Read the label for more specific instructions.
  • Be sure to follow directions about how to mix and how much to use. This is important when using natural, organic or synthetic pesticides. Effectiveness depends on proper use. Always wash your hands after applying a pesticide.
  • If you're not sure, call a professional. Anyone who applies pesticides professionally must be trained and licensed.

Should I worry about drift of crop spray events?

In his presentation "Putting Drift into Perspective," Food and Agriculture Consultant Dr. Steve Savage explains the low incidence of drift issues.

What about my pets? Do I need to take precautions when using pesticides?

Just as pesticides help protect us from stinging and biting insects, pesticides also protect pets from flies, mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. Always read and follow the label when applying pesticides. When using pest control products around your home:

  • Apply pesticides when pets are not in the yard. Wait until sprays have dried before letting your pet back into the area that has been treated. Read the label and follow any additional precautions listed.
  • Remove, or empty and turn over feeding bowls, water dishes and bird baths before pesticide applications.
  • Clean up after an application and store products out of pets’ reach.

Protecting our food supply

Did you know that an adequate, reliable food supply couldn’t be guaranteed without crop protection products?

  • Over 40,000 species of weeds and insects threaten the health and yield of food crops in the United States.
  • Even with the use of modern crop protection products, 20% – 40% of potential food production is lost each year due to pests.
  • The world population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2040. Land available for food production is shrinking. That means agricultural production needs to increase significantly worldwide in less than 40 years. This is only possible by embracing innovation and new technologies.
  • Significant time and investment is put into the creation of any new crop protection product in order to determine that it is safe for use.
  • It costs approximately $256 million to research, develop, and register a new crop protection product.
  • The registration process for a single product can take between 8 – 12 years.
  • An EPA safety review involves over 100 toxicology and environmental studies to ensure the safety of products.
  • The crop protection industry is one of the most highly-regulated in the nation.

Organic pest control

Pesticides used by organic farmers are made from natural products.

Natural does not mean non-toxic.

Organic pest control products must be used according to label directions.

If misused, organic products can harm humans, animals and the environment.

For more information about pest control around your home or community see:

For more information about pest control in agriculture see:

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