Pesticides are pest-killing substances that help protect plants against molds, fungi, rodents, noxious weeds, and insects.
Pesticides help prevent crop loss and, potentially, human disease.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are currently more than 865 registered pesticides.
Human-made pesticides are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This agency determines how pesticides are applied during farming and how much pesticide residue can remain in foods sold in stores.
Exposure to pesticides can happen in the workplace, through foods that are eaten, and in the home or garden.
Pesticides and food
For those not exposed to pesticides at work, the risks of exposure from eating non-organic foods or using pesticides around the home and garden is not clear. To date, research has not been able to prove or disprove claims that organic food is safer than food grown using pesticides.
FOOD AND PESTICIDES
To help protect yourself and your family from pesticides on non-organic fruits and vegetables, remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables and then rinse the vegetables well with tap water. Peel hard-skinned produce, or rinse it with lots of warm water mixed with salt and lemon juice or vinegar. Organic growers do not use pesticides on their fruits and vegetables.
HOME SAFETY AND PESTICIDES
When using pesticides at home:
Do NOT eat, drink, or smoke while using pesticides.
Do NOT mix pesticides.
Do NOT set traps or place bait in areas where children or pets have access.
Do NOT stock up on pesticides -- buy only as much as you need.
Read the manufacturer's instructions and only use as much of the product as directed, in the manner directed.
Store pesticides in the original container with the lid firmly sealed, out of the reach of children.
Wear any protective clothing, such as rubber gloves, specified by the manufacturer.
When using pesticides indoors:
Do NOT apply pesticide sprays to items or areas touched by family members, such as furniture.
Leave the room while the pesticide takes effect -- open the windows to clear the air when you return.
Remove or cover food, cooking utensils, and personal items from the area being treated, then clean kitchen surfaces well before preparing food.
When using baits, clear away all other food debris and scraps to ensure the pests are drawn to the bait.
When using pesticides outdoors:
Close all doors and windows before using the pesticide.
Cover fish ponds, barbecues, and vegetable gardens, and relocate pets and their bedding before using pesticides.
Do NOT use pesticides outdoors on rainy or windy days.
Do NOT water your garden after using a pesticide -- check the manufacturer's instructions for how long to wait.
Tell your neighbors if you use any outdoor pesticides.
To reduce the need for pesticides to eliminate rodents, flies, mosquitoes, fleas, or cockroaches in and around your home:
Do NOT place food scraps in the garden for birds, raccoons, or possums. Throw out any food left in indoor and outdoor pet bowls. Remove fallen fruit from any fruit trees.
Do NOT place piles of wood chips or mulch near the house.
Drain any puddles of water as soon as possible, change birdbath water at least weekly, and run swimming pool filter at least a few hours each day.
Keep gutters free of leaves and other debris that can collect water.
Keep potential nesting places, such as wood and trash piles, off the ground.
Outdoor trash bins and compost containers should be sealed well.
Remove any standing water sources in the house (base of shower, dishes left in sinks).
Seal cracks and crevices where cockroaches may enter the house.
Wash pets and their bedding regularly and see your veterinarian for treatment options.
Parents who handle or are otherwise exposed to pesticides at work should be careful about cleaning any residue from their skin, and removing their clothes and shoes before entering the home or having contact with family members.
Do not buy illegal pesticides.
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Robey WC III, Meggs WJ. Insecticides, herbicides, rodenticides. In: Tintinalli JE, Kelen GD, Stapczynski JS, Ma OJ, Cline DM, eds. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2004:chap 182.
Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.