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What are Pesticides?

Pesticides are substances that prevent, destroy, repel, or reduce the severity of pests. Different classes of pesticides have different toxicities. Pesticides include:

  • Algicides to control algae
  • Antifouling agents to kill organisms attached to boats
  • Fungicides to kill fungi
  • Herbicides to kill weeds
  • Insecticides to kill insects
  • Rodenticides to control mice and other rodents

See also: Boats and Ships Brownfield Factories Food and Cooking Homes Air Pollution Agriculture

Where are Pesticides found?

  • Consumer products - cockroach traps and baits, insect repellants, rat and mouse poisons, flea and tick sprays and collars for pets, disinfectants, products that kill mold and mildew, weed killers, bug sprays, and some swimming pool chemicals
  • Air – vapors and emissions from pesticide use
  • Food and water – food treated with pesticides, contaminated water

How can I be exposed to Pesticides?

Pesticides commonly enter(s) the body through:


Ingestion (swallowing)

  • Eating food with pesticide residues, or drinking water contaminated with pesticides

Inhalation (breathing)

  • Breathing vapors and emissions from pesticide use

Skin contact

  • Touching pesticides or products treated with pesticides

What happens when I am exposed to Pesticides?

Exposure to some pesticides can cause:

  • Irritation of the eyes and skin
  • Birth defects
  • Damage to the nervous system
  • Disruption to the hormone and endocrine systems
  • Cancer

Who is at risk for exposure to Pesticides?

  • Consumers
    • Some consumer products are pesticides; food may have pesticide residues; water may be contaminated with pesticides.
  • Infants and children
    • Children are particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of pesticides.

Reduce your risk

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to pesticides, contact your health care professional. 

Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling chemicals. For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

  • Do you use pesticides inside or outside of your home?
  • Do you use pesticides on your boat?
  • Do you use well water?
  • Do you eat food that has been treated with pesticides?
  • Do you use insect repellent?
  • Use natural and non-toxic pesticide alternatives when possible.
  • Prevent pests from entering your home or garden.
  • Read and follow pesticide product label instructions.
  • Use proper ventilation when applying pesticides.
  • Wear protective equipment such as a mask or gloves when applying pesticides.
  • Store and dispose of pesticides properly.
  • When possible, hire a professional to apply pesticides.
  • Routinely test your well water for pesticides. 
  • If your well water has high levels of pesticides, contact your local or state health agency or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for information on how to reduce your exposure.
  • If your well water contains pesticide levels above EPA’s drinking water advisory levels, consider using bottled water for drinking and cooking or install an activated carbon filtration system or reverse osmosis system.
  • Buy organic and locally grown fruits and vegetables.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables before eating. 
  • Consider growing your own fruits and vegetables.
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after handling fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • When applying insect repellent, read the label to avoid misapplication and prolonged exposures.
  • Do not use insect repellents containing DEET under clothing.
  • Keep children away from pesticide products.
  • Store pesticides in original containers and store out of the reach of children. 
  • Don’t let children play in dirt near waste sites or factories.

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

  • Pesticide Exposure: Health Information Resources
    Links to health resources on pesticide exposure in English and Spanish, including background information; glossaries and dictionaries; data and research; law, regulations, and policy; specific aspects and pesticides; treatment of pesticide poisoning; topic-related searches from the National Library of Medicine; portals; blogs, news, podcasts, and videos; and selection guidelines.

Additional Resources

  • Pesticides Matter
    Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, University of California San Francisco
    Brochure that shares information on reducing exposure to toxic pesticides, and protecting your health.
  • Pesticides
    National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
    Information about pesticides, including research efforts, links to additional resources, and related health topics for consumers and educators from a federal institute that investigates the interplay between environmental exposures, human biology, genetics, and common diseases to help prevent disease and improve human health.
  • Pesticides
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Information on pesticides, including ingredients and products, pest control, regulation, and protection for health and the environment.

Science Classroom (Grades 6-8)

Enhance your education on toxic chemicals in our environment using lesson plans, games and activities, videos, informational websites, and more.

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National Library of Medicine
A 13-minute video about pesticides, where they are found, how they are used, and their effects on human health.
National Library of Medicine
Curated links to consumer health information about pesticides in English and Spanish, including background information, prevention and risk factors, treatments and therapies, related issues, specifics, clinical trials, journal articles, and patient handouts.
Pest Private Eye
Pesticide Safety Education Program (PSEP), University of Nebraska–Lincoln
An online game that educates students about pesticides and integrated pest management (IPM).
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