[Pesticide Safety] Discussing Pesticide Concerns with Clients

Features - Pesticide Issues

As a pest management professional, you are in the best position to listen to clients’ concerns and respond to them in a responsible manner. Here’s how to talk to them about the safety of their children, pets, business and the environment.

October 23, 2013
Gary Braness, Ph.D.

Pesticides continue to play an important role in pest management services. When used according to label directions by trained professionals they provide many benefits. However, if pesticides are misused they may pose a risk or hazard to client safety and the environment. Are you and your team prepared to address clients’ questions about pesticide safety? Do you have enough information about the products that you use to address their concerns in an informed manner?

Some of the questions you are likely to face include:

  • Is it safe?
  • Will it harm the environment?
  • Do you use “green” products?
  • My wife just had a baby. Will the pesticides you use be safe?
  • Can you get me more information on the pesticides you use?

Information presented in this article is intended to help you communicate more effectively with clients about their safety concerns. I will show you how to apply the Hazard (Risk) Equation as the basis for your communication. We also will discuss Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and how it can help ease clients’ concerns about pesticide use. Finally, I’ll give examples of how this information can be used by professionals to effectively communicate with clients. I strongly encourage you to learn more about the pesticides you use by referring to Bennett et al. (2010), Braness (2011), and Suiter and Scharf (2012) (listed in the references on page 76). Your distributor and product manufacturer, local extension service and state pesticide programs also are excellent sources for pesticide information.

Getting Started. As professionals you are in the best position to listen to clients’ concerns and respond to them in a responsible manner. You are not alone in this effort. Everyone in the pest management industry is responsible for the safe use of pesticides. You may find it helpful to remind clients that the pesticide industry is among the most highly regulated industries in the country. Extensive research and development work is required to bring a new pesticide to the marketplace. New pesticides must pass extensive testing as required by the U.S. EPA. For conventional pesticides, it may take up to 10 years to complete the testing and to register a new product. And the review of pesticide safety doesn’t end with its registration. Every 15 years, as required by the Food Quality and Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA), existing pesticides must undergo re-evaluation to review scientific data developed after the pesticide’s initial registration. Despite the many challenges in pesticide development, manufacturers continue to provide products for the industry that are low in toxicity and effective.

Active Listening/Respect. Good communication begins with listening and asking the right questions. Clients will respond more favorably when you listen carefully and are respectful of their concerns. Determine if they are most concerned about the safety of their children, pets, business or the environment. Do they have some heath issues that they believe may be adversely affected by pesticides? Once you fully understand their pesticide concerns you can then address their question(s).

Hazard (Risk) Equation. The hazard (risk) equation is as follows: Hazard (Risk) = Toxicity X Exposure. The hazard (or risk) part of the equation is the potential for injury or danger of poisoning to occur when a pesticide is used. It is dependent on the toxicity of the pesticide and the level of exposure.

Toxicity is the inherent ability of a chemical to cause injury. Toxicity is a fixed value and is based on the chemical properties of the active ingredient. It also can be influenced by the rate of application and the type of formulation used. Toxicity information for a product is found on the label and safety data sheet (SDS). Most of the pesticides you use are low in toxicity and have the CAUTION signal word or are exempt from EPA registration.

Hazard (Risk) = Toxicity X Exposure

Hazard = potential for injury or danger of poisoning to occur when a pesticide is used

Toxicity = inherent ability of a chemical to cause injury

Exposure = contact with pesticides that occurs when they are handled

Exposure refers to the contact with pesticides that occurs when they are handled. Factors that affect exposure include: the type of formulation, frequency of application, application technique, use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the persistence of the pesticide. For more details on the hazard equation and practical steps to reduce pesticide exposure for you and your clients, see Braness (2013).

Keep the hazard equation top of mind when communicating with clients. This simple equation is effective when used as the foundation for better communication. It includes all the elements that are needed to discuss pesticide safety in an understandable way. The National Pesticide Information Center (NIPC) has a fact sheet called Is it Safe? Tips for talking about pesticide risk with the public (www.npic.orst.edu). One key recommendation is to move the discussion from safety to one of pesticide risk. By relying on the hazard equation you can help your clients understand their risk from the pesticides you use. You may find it helpful to provide your clients additional steps they can take to further reduce their exposure to pesticides.

Reduced Risk/Better Results.
In discussions with clients, take time to describe your pest management program. If you base your service on IPM, let your clients know the basic steps that you follow in solving their pest problems. Stress that you do much more than simply apply pesticides. Ask your clients for their cooperation in solving the pest problem. Improvements they make in sanitation and other areas will likely result in reduced pesticide use in and around their property. You and your clients will benefit by improved cooperation.

Examples of Communication.
Below are examples of how a professional can apply the information discussed previously to address their clients’ safety concerns.

Client question: Is the spray you use around my home safe?

PMP response: I appreciate your question. You are talking to the right person as I use this product on a regular basis. There is always some risk associated with an insecticide application, but I put your safety first. The product I’m using is called (insert product name here). It is a (insert class of chemistry) insecticide and has the CAUTION signal word, which means that it is low in toxicity. I also follow all label directions which helps me control the pests, while limiting our exposure to the insecticide. You may have noticed that I wear safety equipment to reduce my exposure when handling the product. To reduce your exposure, I take care to apply this product only when and where needed. This keeps your exposure to the product to a minimum. To further reduce your exposure, I’d suggest you stay indoors until the spray has dried. Also, please close all windows during my application. If you wish, you can leave during the application.

Client question: How will the pesticides you use around my home affect the environment?

PMP response: The pesticide labels list specific precautions and directions for use that when followed will reduce risk to the environment. But, before using any pesticides I inspect your property to determine the extent of your pest problem and what will be needed to manage the pest(s). While doing the inspection, I’m looking at your property to determine if extra precautions are needed. I look for water sources like nearby streams or lakes. I’ll also make note of vegetable gardens or fruit trees, and flower gardens that are adjacent to your home. Perhaps you have a bird feeder in your yard. Finally, I’ll take a look at how close you are to neighbors. Based on the information I gather, I’ll select the best plan and product(s) for the job — ones that will cause the least risk to the environment. I also will advise you on steps you can take to help me solve your pest problem.

Client question: Do you use “green” products?

PMP response: Can you help me understand what you mean by “green” products?


Six Steps to Reduce Insecticide Exposure During and After Application

  1. Read and follow all label directions
  2. 2Wear and care for personal protective equipment
  3. Select insecticide packaging that reduces exposure
  4. Select the best formulation(s) for the job
  5. Maintain application equipment and use appropriate application techniques
  6. Properly store and transport pesticides

Client response/question: Well, I’ve heard from friends that natural products are safer than synthetic chemicals. Is that true?

PMP response: This is a good question and one that I get frequently. It’s our company’s policy to use the least-toxic pesticides and still solve your pest problem. We use both natural and synthetic pesticides. Natural products have been used to manage pests for many years and some of these products are still available and effective. Recently, there has been more interest in natural products because of concerns about the safety of synthetic pesticides.

However, scientists tell us that the safety of a chemical is the function of its chemical structure rather than its origin (i.e., natural vs. man-made). Both natural and synthetic products range widely in their toxicity. We compare a product’s toxicity by looking at the product’s signal word and always try to select products that are lowest in toxicity.

Finally, it’s not only the products that we select that are important, but it’s how the products are applied. As pest management professionals, we apply the products in a way that minimizes your exposure and thus your risk from pesticide use.

Final Thoughts.
Remember, there is no simple one-size fits all solution to address clients’ concerns about pesticide use. This article included ideas that were intended to help you be more successful in your communication about pesticide safety. Key points presented included:

  • Professionals are in the best position to communicate with clients
  • Listen and be respectful of client concerns
  • Apply the Hazard (Risk) Equation
  • Explain your IPM program

Incorporate some or all of these ideas into your existing communication efforts. By working together we can make a difference and put forth a positive message about the safe and effective use of pesticides.


The author is owner of Yosemite Environmental Services, Fresno, Calif. Contact him at gbraness@giemedia.com.


Bennett, G.W., R.M. Corrigan, and J. M. Owens. 2010. Chapter 4: Pesticides, pp. 47-75. In Truman’s scientific guide to pest management operations, 7th ed. Questex Media Group, Cleveland, Ohio.

Braness, G.A. 2013. Reducing insecticide exposure. Pest Control Technology. 41(3):108, 109, 110, 112.

Braness, G.A. 2011. Chapter 19: Insecticides and pesticide safety, pp. 1263-1338. In S.A. Hedges and D. Moreland (eds.), Handbook of pest control: the behavior, life history, and control of household pests, 10th Ed. GIE Media, Richfield, Ohio.

Suiter, D.R. and M.S. Scharf. 2012. Insecticide basics for the pest management professional, Bulletin 1352, 28 pp. (www.caes.uga.edu/publications).