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Occupational & Environmental Epidemiology

Pesticides

Federal law defines a pesticide as "any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest." Pests can be insects; animals such as mice; weeds or other unwanted plants; fungi; or microorganisms like bacteria and viruses. Pesticides include insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, growth regulators, rodenticides, disinfectants and biocides that are used in and on homes, gardens, farms and other locations.

Pesticide use has become commonplace in homes, schools, businesses, and especially in agriculture. But while pesticide use has many benefits, it also has risks if products are not used as directed. Exposure can result in acute illness or injury, and there is increasing evidence that exposure to pesticides may also cause chronic health effects.

In North Carolina, the risk for pesticide exposure is a concern. This is related to the fact that North Carolina is a prominent agricultural state, and it uses significant amounts of pesticides. Also, many people work in agriculture-related activities. North Carolina has a large migrant farmworker population compared to other states (Census of Agriculture, 2012)1 and we employ many pesticide applicators (EPA Certification Plan and Reporting Database).2 Family members of agricultural workers are also at risk of direct or indirect pesticide exposure, as many live in close proximity to fields, participate in farming activities, or come in contact with take-home residues. Lastly, the state employs a high number of both commercial and private pesticide applicators.

1US Department of Agriculture (May 2,2014). 2012 Census of Agriculture.  Retrieved June 20, 2014 from http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/.

2Washington State University. EPA Certification Plan and Reporting Database. Retrieved June 20, 2014.

The uses of pesticides are regulated under both federal and state law. In North Carolina, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NC DACS) regulates the use of pesticide products, while staff in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) work to address public health concerns with regard to pesticides and perform public health surveillance of pesticide-related illness and injuries.

Preventing Exposures

One of the most important measures a person can take when using pesticides is to read and follow the label directions.

Before using pesticide products, consider using an integrated pest management (IPM) approach first. This involves keeping pests out of buildings by sealing or repairing cracks in walls and foundations, and ensuring the building is clean, dry and uncluttered to deny pests food, water and a place to hide. If pesticides are needed, carefully follow label directions and apply them carefully to target the pest, while limiting people's exposure to pesticide residues and minimizing environmental consequences. Use of gels or baits instead of broad spraying or fogging can be helpful in this regard.

Be aware that lumber treated with the pesticide chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, can be a source of exposure. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibited the use of CCA-treated wood in certain applications as of January 1, 2004, wood treated before the ban may still be found in existing structures. Arsenic in the CCA can leach from the wood and leave residues on the surface of wood or in soil around treated wood. Children may be exposed to CCA-treated lumber on decks, playscapes or soil. Washing hands before eating or drinking is important in preventing skin absorption or ingestion of the chemical. CCA can also be an inhalation hazard if the treated wood is cut, sanded or burned.

Learn more about CCA-treated wood and arsenic.

Pesticides are also a concern for private well owners. Private well water should be tested regularly to ensure that the water is safe to drink and use. See N.C. DPH water testing recommendations for North Carolina private well owners.