Understanding Pesticide Labels

— Written By Zack Taylor and last updated by
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We often hear about pesticides in the media. Typically, pesticides are painted in a bad light, as dangerous chemicals that our food is drenched in. As a result, many of us have pre-conceived notions about what pesticides are and about their effect on people and the environment. First, crops are far from drenched in pesticides, with application rates usually less than 20 gallons per acre on many crops. Also, did you know that even organic produce is treated with pesticides? Yes, there are organic pesticides approved for use on organic farms. Are these pesticides safer than non-organic pesticides? Of course you would think so, after all, in order to be certified organic, they must be natural right? But the truth is, all pesticides can be dangerous when used incorrectly.

Step into any home and garden center and you can find a vast array of pesticides. From pre-mixed weed and feed fertilizers, to insect and mice poisons, to fungicides for your tomato plants, and many more. Each of these pesticides have a different desired result. Some are organic, some are not. While they are all different, they still share one thing in common, a label. When I say they have label, I’m not refereeing to the one on the front that is designed to catch your eye with a picture of a scary looking bug or weed. No, I’m referring to the label which has directions for use, the active ingredient, the “Signal Word”, storage and disposal information, and more. All pesticides sold legally in the United States are required to have a label, and every label is required to have certain information on it. Some labels are fairly short, while others can be a booklet of over 100 pages attached to the package. No matter what the length of the label, it is important to read the entire label before you use a pesticide, and make sure you understand it.

Pesticide labels can be quiet cumbersome. After all, a pesticide label is a legally binding contract, between you, the buyer and user, the manufacturer, and the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States. That means it was written by lawyers, to ensure that if a product is used incorrectly, the manufacturer will not be held responsible. Instead, you, the user, will be responsible for any negative impacts of a pesticide. That can be pretty scary to some people, but it doesn’t have to be. When you take the time to understand a pesticide label, you can feel safe and confident knowing that you are doing you part to hold up follow the contract you entered by buying that product, and when used correctly, you can feel confident that a pesticide will be safe and have no negative environmental impacts.

So one reason to understand a pesticide label is to avoid liability. Another even more important reason to read the label is safety. When used improperly, and pesticide can be dangerous to you, your pets, your neighbors, or the environment. By simply following the label, all of these negative impacts can be avoided. The use rate is one of the most important parts of the label. It ensures that the product is used at the right rate to accomplish the goal you are trying to achieve, but also that too much pesticide is not applied, which could run off and cause unintended consequences to the environment. Hopefully, everyone buying a pesticide is reading the use rate, but how many folks take the time to look for the re-entry interval? This is the amount of time after treatment that people or animals should be kept out of the treated area. What about the section on Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE? This section will explain what type clothing you should be wearing when applying a chemical to protect yourself. This information is usually just on the first page or two of the label, imagine how much more is there that you may have never read.

In short, read the entire label. Read it twice if you need to. If you have questions, STOP, do not use the pesticide. Contact the manufacturer or call me, Zachary Taylor, your local extension agent, at 919-775-5624. I will be happy to help and explain the label and answer questions about parts that you do not understand. Removing any weed, pest, or disease is not as important and the proper use of a pesticide which will ensure the safety of you, your pets, your neighbors, and the environment.

If you are interested in learning more about labels, or if you are a certified applicator, a 2-hour course will be offered on Monday, August 15 beginning at 9:00. The course is free and pesticide credits will be offered in nearly all categories, but please register. To register or for more information, please call 919-775-5624.

Zack Taylor is the Agriculture Agent – Field Crops and Livestock, and Pesticide Coordinator for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.