Using Pesticides Properly

While it is not the intent of this website to teach “do-it-yourself” pest control we recognize that a great many homeowners do choose to tackle their pest problems themselves. We hope that the many articles on BugInfo will provide solid information on the important NON-chemical steps needed to properly manage many household and garden pests, but that when it comes to the use of an insecticide or rodenticide or herbicide that you consider working with a licensed pest management company. These folks will have the training and experience needed to ensure the chemical products are used as effectively as possible in the legal manner intended so that any possible risk from the use of a toxic substance is minimized.

However, for those who choose to purchase products for insect, rodent, weed, or plant disease control at the local retail store, please continue here and learn some important aspects in the use of that product. First, recognize that while the relative toxicity of many products you can buy is very low to people and pets, there still is toxicity, and problems can occur when that product is not used in the manner intended. The same thing could be said for household cleaning products, automobile fluids, or medicines – we are given instructions on how to use a pesticide in a manner that will control the pest troubling you, but minimize any risk to you, your children, your pets, or the environment around you. Those instructions are found on the Product Label which will be attached to every pesticide container, and it is important not to ignore the information given there. In fact, this Label information is a legal document that has been approved by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and your state’s regulatory agency, and to use the product otherwise is not legal and increases possible hazards.

So, Step #1 is to Read The Label. On here you will find specific precautions regarding safety equipment you should wear during the mixing of the product in a sprayer and the application itself. The basic equipment you must wear for applying liquid pesticides is long sleeves, long pants, waterproof gloves, and safety glasses. Nearly all insecticides can be absorbed through your skin, and while we never intend to spill or splash chemical onto ourselves mistakes will happen, and covering the skin is a simple precaution to minimize your exposure. If any pesticides do happen to get onto your clothing you should change out of that clothing as soon as possible, and wash that contaminated clothing separately from other household clothing. While very little pesticide can be absorbed through your eyes, splashing chemical of any kind into your eyes can be very irritating to the eyes themselves, and simply wearing safety glasses can prevent this.

There may also be a need to wear some sort of respiratory protection if the Product Label states that you should “avoid breathing spray vapors”, so read the label prior to leaving the store so that you can purchase the accessories needed at that time. If your plan is to spray your lawn for insects or weeds you should try very hard not to walk in the areas that are already wet with the spray, but since this can happen it might be advisable to wear waterproof boots as well, and when you are finished with the treatment your gloves and boots should be washed with soap and water, and the clothing you wore at the time should be removed and laundered before you wear them again. All of these precautions, by the way, are MANDATORY for licensed professionals who would apply the same things.

You should apply a pesticide only when children, pets, or other people are not in the area to contact the wet spray you have applied, and allowed back in only when the treatment is dry. This is of particular importance with weed control chemicals, for a dog that walks on wet weed spray and then onto your nice lawn is going to transfer some of that herbicide onto the lawn and potentially cause visible damage. Once the spray is dry, meaning the water carrier has evaporated, the actual pesticide active ingredient will stay put, adhering well to the surface you applied it to, and casual contact with that surface is not going to remove any appreciable active ingredient.

A chemical treatment for pests such as weeds or insects only works if you apply the product to the surfaces the pests are on. Sprays or granules or dusts that manage to end up somewhere else not only are a waste of your material, but now you run the risk of contaminating another site that you do not have control over. There have been many examples of people spraying weed control chemicals on windy days, allowing the wind to blow some of the mist over onto a neighbor’s lawn, some shrubs or trees in your own yard, or anyplace else outside your own property, and causing damage to or the death of desirable plants. A weed control chemical does not understand what a “weed” is, and may harm your garden plants as well. It also is very important to take care with the application so that drift and runoff do not occur. Keeping pesticides and fertilizers out of gutters will prevent these materials from ending up in the local creek, where they may cause harm to that environment.

Up to now, then, we have stressed the protection of your health and the health of the people and animals around you, as well as protection of surrounding landscapes and turf that you do not intend to harm. You need to wear the appropriate protective equipment, wash contaminated clothing correctly, and treat only when you know you can contain any spray, granules, or dusts onto the property where you want the treatment to go. Another important step in the process of using pesticides correctly has to do with mixing and applying it properly. The Product Label tells you very specifically how to do this, and if you are buying a “concentrate” pesticide that needs to be diluted with water for the application you must mix the concentrate exactly as the Product Label dictates. It is a common misconception that using a “stronger” mixture than called for will kill the pests better, or keep them killed for a longer period of time. In reality, the manufacturer of that product has invested many millions of dollars in testing and research to determine exactly how much is needed for effective control, and you gain nothing by increasing the dose and you increase the risk of harm to others or the environment around you.

On the Product Label, then, pay attention to the mixing instructions, to the directions for applying the material, and to any precautions on how soon people and pets should be allowed back into the area you have treated. Some of the first information on any pesticide label will be “Environmental Hazards”, and this is another very important section to read. There could be certain kinds of plants or animals that have a particular sensitivity to a pesticide, and you need to be aware of this prior to the application. While most insect control products present a low hazard to mammals and birds, many of them are very toxic at low concentrations to “cold blooded” animals, such as lizards, frogs, or fish. If you have a fish pond in your landscape you must pay extra attention to how you apply the product, and stay well away from that area to ensure no pesticide enters their habitat. If you have insect pests close to the perimeter of that pond you should avoid treating with any pesticide that cannot be placed carefully and that will not have the potential to drift into the water.

We’d like to spend a couple of paragraphs on a different kind of pesticide application, and that is rodent control. It is very easy to purchase rodent poisons at a great many retail stores, and then apply them carelessly in and around our homes. Just as a weed control chemical may not distinguish between the plants you don’t want and the ones you do, rodent poisons may kill any animal that eats them, including pets. So, a few simple precautions should be followed. First, many rodent baits come in small packets, and these are NOT “throw” bags – professional pest management companies refer to them, for good reason, as “place” packs. Perhaps you have rats in the attic, and the urge is to poke your head up into the attic area and then fling a few of these packets off toward the various corners of that attic. This will create problems, as it may be impossible for you to retrieve them, and any uneaten bait in them, at some future time. They are now out of your control, and that is not a good thing.

Out in your landscape you may be troubled with mice or rats living in thick shrubbery or groundcover, and once again the temptation is to just toss some paraffin bait blocks into that planting and hope for the best. This is another invitation for allowing the wrong animals to get to and eat that poison bait. Licensed professionals are prohibited from this kind of application, and they will bait for rodents outdoors ONLY with the use of bait stations that are designed to prevent children or pets from reaching the bait. In our articles on BugInfo on rodents such as Rats we discuss the non-chemical approaches to rodent control, and we hope you will read these as well. Rodent management around your home will be greatly improved by the removal of thick vegetation that allows them to hide on your property, elimination of food resources such as pet foods or fallen fruits and nuts, and good exclusion work to close off the small openings the rodents use to get into your home. It may not even be necessary to kill any rodents and still be able to eliminate them from your property, and poison baits should not be the first and only step you take.

And, finally, we come to the important area of disposing of your empty containers, or even more importantly disposing of pesticide containers that are NOT empty, but that you no longer intend to use. There are opportunities in most counties of most states to take unwanted pesticides to designated locations during the year, when the county regulatory agency offers what we will generally call “cleanup” or chemical disposal days. It may be tempting just to wrap that unwanted container in paper and hide it in your household trash, but this ultimately ends up in a landfill where it now can cause contamination or other problems. We cannot have toxic materials thrown along roadsides, dumped into gutters, or poured down the sink, but must take the responsibility for disposing of them properly.

We go back to that Product Label, and on it you will find instructions for disposing of empty containers. For many aerosol products this may simply be wrapping that can in newspaper and dropping in your trash can. You may also be allowed to dispose of other containers in your household garbage, but if it was a liquid pesticide you need to ensure you first have removed as much toxic material as possible, and this is referred to as “rinsing”. For a concentrated product that you diluted with water for use, you would empty the container, then add a small amount of water to the container and shake it to remove residues from the sides of the container, and then pour this into your spray applicator. It should be done at least 3 times, or until you are getting clear “rinsate” coming out. This has the added benefit of enabling YOU to use as much of this expensive material as possible for your pest control effort.

There is a great deal of effort by many groups to outlaw pest control chemicals completely, and our ability to keep them available for either professional or for homeowner use depends on continuing to use them properly. Every mistake that happens because of negligence makes it that much more likely that some products will be taken away from us. Having the ability to eliminate unwanted insects from our homes and weeds from our yards, or to keep our landscape plants healthy and free of plant disease organisms is often best done with chemicals, so let’s do our best to keep them around.