Pesticides are poisons designed to kill a variety of plants and animals, such as insects (insecticides), weeds (herbicides), and mold or fungus (fungicides). They are each composed of an inert carrier and a pest-specific active ingredient, both of which are toxic to humans and pets.
Pesticides may enter the body in one of the following three ways, which are ordered from least to most dangerous:
- absorbed through the skin. People can get pesticide on their skin because it is likely to splash or mist while mixing, loading or applying the chemicals. Skin contact may also occur while touching protective clothing, a piece of equipment, or any other surface that was exposed to pesticides;
- swallowed. Numerous reports exist of people accidentally drinking or eating a pesticide that had been placed in an unlabeled container, or by children whose access was not adequately child-proofed. Toxic substances can also be ingested when eating or smoking near those who have handled the chemicals; and
- inhaled. Powders, airborne droplets and vapors can easily be inhaled. Low-pressure applications present a relatively limited hazard because most of the droplets are too large and heavy to remain in the air. High-pressure applications, however, are particularly dangerous because the droplets are small enough that they can be carried by winds for considerable distances. Pesticides with a high inhalation hazard should have a label that instructs the user to use a respirator.
Health Effects and Symptoms of Pesticide Exposure
The health effects of pesticides are specific to their ingredients. Organophosphates and carbamates, for instance, affect the nervous system, while others may irritate the skin and eyes, influence the body’s hormone or endocrine system, and even cause cancer. Symptoms of pesticide exposure may appear immediately and disappear soon after exposure has ceased, or they may take a long time — even years — to develop. Specific symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following.
Acute symptoms include:
- mild poisoning: irritation of the nose, throat, eyes or skin, headache, dizziness, loss of appetite, thirst, nausea, diarrhea, sweating, weakness or fatigue, restlessness, nervousness, changes in mood, and/or insomnia;
- moderate poisoning: vomiting, excessive salivation, coughing, constriction of the throat and chest, abdominal cramps, blurred vision, rapid pulse, excessive perspiration, profound weakness, trembling, lack of muscular coordination, and/or mental confusion;
- severe poisoning: inability to breathe, small or pinpoint pupils, chemical burns, uncontrollable muscular twitching, unconsciousness, and/or death.
Long-term health effects include:
- cancers (lung, brain, testicular, lymphoma, leukemia);
- spontaneous abortions and stillbirths;
- genetic damage;
- infertility, including lowered sperm count;
- liver and pancreatic damage;
- neuropathy; and
- disturbances to immune systems (including minor ones, such as asthma and allergies)
To read more about the effects of pesticides, click here.