drawing of a bug

What is a pesticide?

Pesticides are substances used for destroying pests such as insects, rodents, fungi, or weeds that may be harmful to people, domestic animals or cultivated plants.  Pesticides are poisons that can help to control pests around your home.  Some types of pesticides  are:

  • Insecticides for insects
  • Herbicides for plants
  • Fungicides for fungi
  • Rodenticides for rodents

What is a pest?

A pest may be any living organism that causes damage, causes economic loss, or transmits or produces disease.  For example, termites cause damage to our homes.  Some insect pests are cockroaches, fleas, bed bugs and mosquitoes.  Other pests include lice, mold and spiders.  Some common weeds are dandelions, kudzu or poison ivy.  Rodents such as mice and rats are also common pests.

How can pesticides be beneficial?

Pesticides can be beneficial when used in the proper amount and in the correct manner.  
Pesticides can be used to control:

  • Mosquitoes and ticks that may transmit disease
  • Bugs or rodents that damage agricultural crops
  • Insects that damage homes and building structures
  • Harmful bacteria, viruses, or fungi
  • Rodents that may transmit disease
  • Weeds in yards and gardens
  • Algae in pools or ponds

How can pesticides be harmful?

Overuse or misuse of pesticides can be very damaging to your health, wildlife or the environment.  For example, many pesticides are poisonous if accidently ingested.  Many pesticides can irritate the skin of people or pets.  Be sure to follow the directions on pesticide labels for safe use, storage, disposal and emergency medical treatment.

What household products may contain pesticides?

  • Bug sprays and baits
  • Flea and tick sprays or powders
  • Lawn and garden bug killers
  • Mold and mildew cleaners
  • Pet collars
  • Wasp and hornet sprays
  • Mosquito repellents
  • Rat poisons
  • Ant traps and sprays

What are the symptoms of pesticide poisoning?

Symptoms of pesticide poisoning vary depending upon which chemicals are in the pesticide, how much pesticide you were exposed to, and how often you were exposed. Common symptoms of pesticide exposure are:

  • Skin irritation
  • Eye irritation
  • Nose, mouth, or throat irritation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Sleepiness
  • Headache
  • Muscle twitching
  • Numbness

How to reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning?

  • Always read and follow the pesticide label directions
  • Use the correct amount of pesticide; more is not better
  • Use only indoor approved pesticides inside your home
  • Wear protective clothing such as gloves, goggles or mask
  • Keep children and pets away from areas where you apply pesticides
  • Store pesticides in a locked cabinet out of reach of children and pets
  • Dispose of pesticides properly
  • Use only pesticides safe for fruit and vegetables in your garden
  • Only use a pesticide in way for which it was approved
  • Minimize the need for pesticides by practicing Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
  • Alternatives such as boric acid powder are less toxic and very effective for control of ants and cockroaches.

The risk of having adverse health problems from pesticide exposure depends on (1) how harmful pesticide ingredients are, (2) how much pesticide you were exposed to, and (3) how long you were exposed. Childrenpregnant women, the elderly, or people who are already sick may be more sensitive to the harmful effects of pesticides than other people.  Be careful when working with, handling or storing pesticides.

Are there any regulations for pesticides usage?

Yes.  The Tennessee Department of Agriculture (AG)  works to preserve the quality of agricultural inputs and outputs to protect consumers and maintain a fair marketplace.   Their Pesticide Section works with commercial and private applicators, pesticide manufacturers and dealers, structural pest control operators, farmers, landscapers and others to ensure regulations are followed for public safety.  TDA’s Pesticide Section also registers pesticides and applicators.  TDA will accept written requests to investigate the misuse or misapplication of pesticides.

How can we dispose of old pesticides properly?

Do not dispose of your pesticides in your garbage.  Do not pour leftover pesticides down the sink, into the toilet, down the sewer, in the street drain, or in the yard.  Follow the directions on the label for proper disposal.  The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s (TDEC) Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste Management helps counties to collect household hazardous wastes for safe and proper disposal.  Check with your local public works, environmental agency or health department to find out if your community has a household hazardous waste collection program for getting rid of unwanted, leftover pesticides.

Are there natural alternatives to chemical pesticides?

Yes, there are many natural alternatives – both old and new – for helping to control pests.  A classic natural alternative is cedar trees.  Cedar wood is naturally insect resistant.  Using cedar wood in your yard or closet will help to deter bugs.  A newer example is the pyrethrum pesticides.  Pyrethrums are made from chrysanthemum flowers and are good against insects.  Boric acid powder is good against insects and spiders when put into cracks along floors and walls.   Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an environmentally sensitive and effective way to control pests without the use of synthetic chemicals. 

What if you suspect someone has pesticide poisoning?

If you suspect pesticide poisoning and someone is unconscious, having breathing problems, or convulsions, then call 911. If you suspect pesticide exposure without a life-threatening emergency, then call your local poison center at 1-800-222-1222.  The Tennessee Poison Center can answer many different types of questions about chemicals.  The National Pesticide Information Center at 1-800-858-7378 can be another resource.

Additional resources

Tennessee Department of Health
Healthy Homes

U.S. Environmental protection Agency (EPA)
Integrated Pesticide Management (IPM)

National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC)

Tennessee Department of Agriculture (AG)
Regulatory Services

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC)
Household Hazardous Waste

Tennessee Poison Center 1-800-222-1222

University of Tennessee (UT)
Institute of Agriculture Extension