What to Do in a Pesticide Emergency

Use of Chemicles in Agriculture (Photo: USDA)The first three steps are things you can do ahead of time to avoid pesticide drift and injury. If spraying is about to occur or has already occurred, skip to step 4.

1. Notify people who might be spraying in your area that you are concerned about exposure to pesticides.

Tell them you don't want to be exposed to pesticides through drift, runoff, or vaporization. You might tell them about any disabilities (e.g., chemical sensitivities, allergies, asthma, compromised immune system) that might deny you access to your own property or public facilities because of their spraying. (This approach has been successful for some people.) Another approach is, e.g., identifying loss of income or assets due to spraying (e.g., if you operate an organic farm, or keep bees, who are vulnerable to insecticide exposure). That said, some people do worry that such tactics could provoke spiteful pesticide attacks; use your best judgment on this.

2. Ask those who might spray near you to notify you in advance so that you can protect yourself, your family, and your property.

Advance notice is, of course, helpful in avoiding exposures. Sometimes, notice may not be given (when, e.g., applicators have been waiting for days for the wind to subside and finally give up and apply when wind still persists), and drift can be more extreme.

Some communities have laws requiring notification of impending pesticide applications in some or all cases. Some states have passed laws that prohibit communities from passing such ordinances. Beyond Pesticides is currently compiling a list of statutes and ordinances concerning notification. Contact us for information.

3. If county or township roadside spraying is a problem, post your roadside frontage with "do not spray" signs and notify the appropriate county/township personnel.

Some cities, counties, or states require a specific sign that is readily recognizable, and you must register for it and/or for a “no spray” request at the appropriate office (or online). (Notifying the appropriate person may not be as easy as it sounds. For example, in some townships, the road grader does pesticide spraying, may not work in an office, and may be reachable only by phone or leaving voicemail — sometimes easier said than accomplished.)

4. If you know that there will be spraying in your area:

  • Find out what chemical will be sprayed, and get a copy of the label and the safety data sheet (SDS). If the applicator won't give you a copy, get the name of the product as completely as possible, and call the  state enforcement agency and ask for a label. Or check out EPA's label files.
  • If possible, get sensitive individuals out of the area during and immediately after the spraying, and don't allow pets to run through sprayed areas. Apart from the direct hazards to them, pets can track pesticides into the house, where they persist longer than they would outside.
  • When driving through an area that has been sprayed, close your windows and vents, putting your car's fan on maximum recirculation.

So: how to get "away" from the pesticide? When spraying is conducted, it is often fairly widespread. (That's why we said, "If  possible.") If you can't leave the area, stay inside during the spraying and immediately after, with the windows closed. Then it gets tricky. At what point is it better to open the windows and let in fresh air? That will depend on many things, including the temperature (chemicals vaporize faster in hotter weather); rain (some will be washed off, but some will be activated by rain); wind direction (toward or away from you); and, of course, what was sprayed. If the stuff is smelly, then your nose may be a guide, but sometimes the smell comes from stuff that's added to the actual poison — you don't know that the poison is gone just because the smell is gone.

5. When pesticide spraying IS conducted:

  • Protect yourself. Don't forget things like clothes hanging on clotheslines!
  • Gather information and write down as much information as you can:
    • date and time
    • description and/or photos of plane, truck, or other application device:
      • plane: number, color, flight pattern, how turns were made, number of turns
      • truck: license number, business name
      • other: type of device, identification, how far away, how was spray directed?
    • can you see spray being released off target?
    • what property is being sprayed?
    • weather conditions:
      • wind direction and speed: if you don't have an anemometer, you can call the nearest airport and/or look at clues such as how smoke rises, are leaves rustling, do flags extend, do branches move, etc.
      • temperature
      • humidity and sky conditions
    • any immediate and noticeable effects: smell, strange behavior of bees, irritation to eyes or mucous membranes, headache, nausea, other symptoms

6. If there is, or you suspect, drift of the pesticide onto you or your property, call the state agency and EPA to file a pesticide misuse complaint. Ask them to send an investigator.

In addition, you should report any application that drifts into a body of water (in many cases, this is illegal) and anything that appears unsafe (spraying around a school bus stop, for example.)

7. After those most-urgent steps have been taken:

  • Call the landowner, farmer, or pesticide applicator to find out what pesticide was used.
  • The name could be given as a trade name or a common name (e.g., "active ingredients"). Try to get both. Other important identifiers are the Chemical Abstracts System (CAS) numbers for the active ingredients and the manufacturer.
  • Find out possible ill effects of exposure and what you can do to mitigate them.
  • An important source of information is the pesticide label, which lists hazards; the label is also a legal document that prescribes application methods and precautions. It may be available from the applicator, the state agency or Beyond Pesticides.
    • The product's material safety data sheet or MSDS may be obtained from the applicator or state agency.
    • Additional information is available from several sources, including Beyond Pesticides: 202-543-5450 ([email protected]).
  • Take recommended medical measures.
  • MAYBE Wash herbicide residues off valuable trees and shrubs after taking samples. Before taking this step, consider these points: First, your case may be weakened if evidence is removed before an official takes samples. Therefore, it may be a good idea to have an independent person with you when taking samples if you choose to try to save your plants while waiting for an investigator. (See below for sampling suggestions.) Also, some herbicides are activated by water, in which case you should make sure to eliminate all traces of the herbicide.
  • Document the damage:
    1. In the case of herbicides, it is important to document the condition of susceptible plants before and after the damage is apparent. Most herbicides will show effects 1–7 days after the application. Take photographs immediately after the application to show plant condition before the chemical affects them, and later take follow-up shots from the same angles. (Take notes.) Try to take pictures or a series of pictures that focus on leaves and growing tips of plants, but that also establish their location relative to some recognizable landmark. Take samples of vegetation near and at several distances from the site of application. Place in separate, clean, tightly sealed plastic bags (double-bagging is better) in the freezer. Take caution when collecting and storing samples to avoid exposure as much as possible.
    2. In the case of physical illness of people or animals, see a physician or vet to confirm symptoms, obtain a diagnosis, and receive treatment. Get a written report signed by the physician or vet. (Note: Many physicians and vets are not familiar with the symptoms of pesticide poisoning, many of which resemble cold or flu symptoms. Describe your exposure and ask them to check the symptoms; blood or urine tests may be necessary.)
    3. In the case of a bee kill, examine the hives immediately. Unusual behavior, lack of bees in the hive, and unusually high mortality (more than 100 bees per day) are good indications of pesticide poisoning. Call the state agency to arrange for a hive inspection. Collect a handful of dead bees and put them in the freezer in a clean, tightly sealed plastic bag for possible analysis.
    4. Try to eliminate other possible causes for the damage: disease, pest damage, drought, low oxygen levels in ponds, etc.
    5. It is always helpful to have an impartial witness accompany you in collecting the evidence. (Note: If the state agency sends an investigator, he/she will do these things. However, the investigator often arrives too late — two weeks or more after the incident — to document the damage.)
    6. Write all this down as soon as possible.
    7. Keep a record of every phone call and conversation regarding the incident (name, date, time, and substance). Write letters confirming your understanding of the substance of the phone call when you receive important information — state the major points of the conversation and request a response within five days if the other person disagrees with your statements.

8. Legal recourse

There are two main avenues of legal recourse: action taken by the state or EPA against the applicator because of violations of the law and civil action to recover compensation for damages.

  • Criminal: Use inconsistent with the label is a violation of state and federal law.
    Many labels prohibit drift or use in ways that will injure people, non-target plants, endangered species, water resources, etc. There are also other provisions of the state pesticide law (of which you should get a copy from the state agency) that may apply. This is what the state agency investigator is supposed to do. You may need to be a "squeaky wheel" to keep the process moving. If the department does nothing for 120 days, then EPA may step in. (Of course, by that time, most pesticide residues are long gone.) We suggest you call EPA immediately, even though they will just refer you to the state because at least they will be aware of the incident.
  • Civil: You may recover compensation for damages.
    You should file a pesticide complaint with the state agency and ask whether you need to take any other steps if you think you might seek to recover damages in court. In some states, failure to file a form with the state can weaken your case. In addition, the investigation can provide valuable information. If you pursue this route:
    1. Estimate the value of the damage and notify the applicator. Many settle quickly because they want to avoid court costs and additional insurance costs. (But don't forget to file the forms, etc.  with the state agency in the meantime.)
    2. If you hire an attorney, find one who is familiar with this area of law. There are occasional reports of an attorney being paid off by the pesticide applicator, especially in rural areas. Beyond Pesticides, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, or your chapter of the Sierra Club can try to help you locate someone who won't do that; see advice on choosing an attorney here.
    3. Asthma was previously mentioned as a disability. Chemical sensitivity is now recognized by some agencies (e.g., HUD) as a disability protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is a possible way of protecting you in the future.
    4. If you go to court to recover damages, you will need to show two things: (1) that the damage was caused by the applicator's use of a particular pesticide, and (2) the amount of the damage.
    5. Documentation that the damage was caused by the applicator's use of a pesticide:
      • the documentation above
      • the report of the state agency investigation
      • residue analyses, which should be performed by the state agency. Note that if they do not respond promptly, the analyses won't be worth anything. In that case, the samples you collected may need to be analyzed. The state health agency can supply a list of laboratories that can do the analysis. Be sure that the lab tells you the detection level for their method, and that the lab can analyze for the pesticide involved in the type of material (soil, plant or animal tissue, water) that you have. More information about choosing labs is available from this article or you may e-mail us.
    6. Documentation of the amount of the damage:
      • County agents can give an estimate of the value of shade trees and ornamentals.
      • Estimates of past yields and yields of unaffected fields are useful in estimating crop damage.
      • Keep records of visits to doctors, time missed from work, medication, etc. for health-related injuries. If the attorney is experienced in personal injury cases, he/she should know the right questions to ask.
      • Keep track of the costs of determining the damage.

9. Tell us what happened

Beyond Pesticides monitors the effectiveness of state and federal enforcement programs, so we will know the real risks associated with pesticides. Please tell us what happened and how well the state agency and EPA responded.

10. Join Beyond Pesticides and help eliminate pesticide problems

Beyond Pesticides works to help you and others when you have been injured by pesticides. We also work to eliminate these problems by demonstrating to decision-makers the real costs associated with pesticide use. You can help by joining us today.