[Pesticide Issues] A Crash Course in Reading and Interpreting Pesticide Labels

Features - Pesticide Issues

Following label instructions will allow pest management professionals to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits.

May 28, 2015

Editor’s note: In the following article, Richard Berman, retired technical director of Waltham Services, writes of the importance of reading and properly understanding labels, based on his 44 years of pest control industry experience. In addition to doing technical writing and consulting, Berman continues to represent the regulated commercial pesticide applicator communities on the Massachusetts Pesticide Board, helping make pesticide public policy and registering pesticidaes.

FIFRA section 2(p) defines the Label as “the written, printed, or graphic matter on, or attached to, the pesticide or device or any of its containers or wrappers.” Labeling is defined as “all labels and other written, printed or graphic matter accompanying the pesticide at any time or to which reference is made on the label, or in literature.” A second class of labeling is called Collateral Labeling. “Collateral labeling includes bulletins, circulars, brochures, data sheets, flyers or other written, printed or graphic matter which are referred to on the label or which accompany the product.” Labeling and collateral labeling are subject to the same legal requirements of the label. State laws modeled after FIFRA say in similar or identical words that “No person shall use a registered pesticide in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.” This is where the expression “the label is the law” originates. It seems logical that if one can read and understand the written word this legal requirement should be easy to comply with. This often is where problems arise. Labels are not always clear and easily understood. This article will explore where and how labels can be confusing, review some specific terms and suggest how to deal with possible conflicting language.

Providing Clarity.

Rodenticide labels approved for use outdoors prohibit the use of fence and perimeter baiting beyond 100 feet from a structure. Does this mean fence and perimeter baiting is acceptable within 100 feet of the structure? Yes.

Labels contain no-option use-direction statements and advisory statements. Recalling English class, a direct-use statement for purposes of reading, interpreting and understanding labels means the reader (the user) has no choice but to accept the statement as truth and its directions must be followed. Label statements using the words “must” and “shall” are unambiguous and whatever follows is required. For example, rodenticide labels say “Tamper-resistant bait stations must be used if children, pets, non-target mammals or birds may access the bait.”

This seems to imply bait may be applied outside without using a tamper-resistant bait station if no exposure to children, non-target mammals or birds is possible. A previous statement on this same label says: “Bait stations are mandatory for outdoor-above-ground use.” These statements seem to be in conflict. Whether you agree or not, this writer recommends always following the most conservative statement to avoid misuse, injury and assure compliance. Lines of text also include expressions like “do not,” “must not” and “use only.” These expressions are pretty clear and are mandatory, requiring the user follow subsequent directions.

Advisory statements do not need to be followed, and are just that — advisory. The use of expressions like “may be,” or “it is recommended” are not mandatory, but the user should observe and follow that language as these words are there for a reason. Following advisory statements will help ensure better control results and ensure label compliance. But such language allows a little flexibility.

At this point, it must be noted that certain label language is spelled out by the U.S. EPA, and registrants have no choice but to include those statements. Registrants that want to manufacture and distribute their products in the United States must include this language as a condition for registration. For example, Keep out of Reach of Children will always appear on labels, even though many products are expressly labeled for application in areas occupied by children, and some labels may even allow contact after treated surfaces have dried. In such cases, I would interpret the keep-out-of-reach statement to apply to the chemical concentrate or ready-to-use formulation. Even though some label language seems to allow contact with liquid-treated and dry surfaces do we want to encourage such contact? Even though the label may allow a certain application use and be legal, that doesn’t always mean it is a good idea to employ such use. The user can and should default to a more conservative application if there is unacceptable risk involved. Registration means pesticides do not represent an unreasonable risk to the environment when used as directed by the label. Standard Section 18 registration does not mean pesticides are “safe” or “non-toxic.” We need to avoid using these terms when communicating risk and hazards to the public. All pesticides are toxic by definition. It’s the toxicity and risk that varies greatly.

Call on Your Resources.

Some pesticides are not registered for use in food preparation/serving areas. Does this mean that such products cannot be used in home kitchens, or kitchens shared by students in suite-type residences? Kitchens used by people preparing food for their own consumption are usually not considered food preparation/serving areas, although some may disagree. When confronting such questions of interpretation, I would first go to the manufacturer and ask what they intend those words or statements to mean and how their product can be used. Studying available labeling and marketing materials (which you recall carry the weight of law) may give the user clues to how the manufacturer intends that product be used. I also would speak with my local regulatory agency if there is any doubt what a product’s particular language means and ask how they would interpret that use when it pertains to compliance.


Contact the author at rberman@giemedia.com.