Introduction to Pesticides

Two people with backpack sprayers, spraying pesticides in a field

Frequently Asked Questions:

  1. What are pesticides?
  2. Can you help me with my pest problem?
  3. How do pesticides affect the environment and human health?
  4. Who uses pesticides?
  5. What are “alternatives” to pesticides?
  6. What products can I use that replace pesticides?
  7. How can I help reduce pesticide use?
  8. A brief history of pesticide use
  9. What laws and regulations are there regarding pesticides?
  10. Where can I send samples for pesticide testing?
  11. I've been exposed to pesticides. What should I do?
  12. Where does NCAP work?

1. What are pesticides?

Pesticides are agents (for example: insecticides, herbicides, rodenticides and fungicides) that are designed to kill living organisms. But they don't just kill the "pest," they can harm other creatures, too. Many common chemical pesticides are dangerous and can cause ill health effects in people, pets and wildlife when exposure occurs. Learn more about specific pesticides from our Pesticide Factsheets.

2. Can you help me with my pest problem?

Yes! At NCAP, we aim to empower people to research and employ alternatives to pesticides. We have many free resources on our website: how to deal with common pests and weeds, pesticide factsheets, information specifically for farmers, and more. If you're having trouble with a pest or weed problem and want expert advice tailored to your situation, we also offer sliding-scale consultation services. Our experienced staff will provide you with science-based information and resources by phone or video call, and follow up to ensure your success. Learn more about our Pest and Weed Management Consultation services. 

3. How do pesticides affect the environment and human health?

Pesticides can have negative impacts on other organisms aside from the intended pest, and this can cause problems in the broader environment. Salmon are a vital and historic part of ecology, food and culture throughout the Northwest, especially for Indigenous communities. Sadly, the survival of these fish is threatened by pesticide pollution. Declining pollinator populations (bees, butterflies, beetles, hummingbirds, etc.) have been documented across the world, posing a real threat to crop production and to the integrity of native ecosystems. Although there are multiple drivers of this phenomenon, systemic insecticides are recognized as a key factor in pollinator decline. Many other types of wildlife are threatened by toxic pesticides in the environment.

Closeup of several large salmon underwater
Salmon | Photo: PNN Laboratory

Pesticide exposure has also been linked to a number of human health concerns including serious illnesses, cancer and birth defects. For example we unknowingly consume the pesticide chlorpyrifos on a regular basis, resulting in exposures many times the level that the EPA deems safe. Children ages one to two consume chlorpyrifos in food at levels 140 times their “safe” level, according to EPA estimates. While chlorpyrifos was deemed harmful enough that it was banned for residential use in 2015, those who grow our food are not protected, absorbing chlorpyrifos through the skin and inhalation as they pick, pack and tend crops. Learn more in our Chlorpyrifos Factsheet.


Another harmful and very widely used pesticide is glyphosate. The World Health Organization has reclassified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Forty countries have banned or restricted glyphosate use, including Canada and Mexico. Pure glyphosate is low in toxicity, but products usually contain other ingredients that help glyphosate get into plants and make the product more toxic. Products containing glyphosate may cause eye or skin irritation. Swallowing products with glyphosate can cause increased saliva, burns in the mouth and throat, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Fatalities have been reported in cases of intentional ingestion. Learn more in our Glyphosate Guide.

4. Who uses pesticides?

Unfortunately, pesticides may be used in a variety of settings including in and around homes. Inside the home, people may use pesticides to deal with unwanted critters (e.g. ants, spiders, wasps, rats, termites, fleas, bed bugs). In yards and gardens, pesticides may be used to kill undesired weeds, pests (slugs, wasps, rats, etc.) and even mosses on roofs and other areas. Pesticides are even used on people’s bodies, such as insect repellent.

Outside of the home, pesticides are used most widely by farms but also for landscaping (including public parks), forestry, schools, mosquito control and more.

Airplane spraying pesticides over forest

5. What are “alternatives” to pesticides?

Most issues that you encounter in your home, yard or garden can be avoided or solved using ecological alternatives to toxic, chemical pesticides. Safe alternatives focus on the pro-active prevention of pests and weeds, rather than just reactive treatment. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an ecosystem-based alternative that focuses on long-term prevention of pests and their damage through a combination of methods. Each IPM method (prevention, cultural/sanitation, physical/mechanical, biological, and finally chemical as a last resort) provides an opportunity to thoroughly think through the pest control process and to reduce pesticide use. Examples include using mulch to suppress weeds, flame weeding, physical traps for rodents, introducing natural enemies of pests, etc.

6. What products can I use that replace pesticides?

NCAP does not sell products. Much of what we suggest relates to preventing pest problems through Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies and through more ecological solutions. We advise learning about the biology of the pest and approaches that do not rely as much on actual products but more on preventing pest problems. Pest is a relative term. Every organism plays a role in the ecosystem. Understand the role and its importance. ‘Pest’ problems usually result from imbalances that are imposed on a natural system. Plant a wide variety of native flowers, shrubs, and trees to offer year-round sources for pollen and nectar and reduce the need for pesticides. Companion planting minimizes problems and maximizes beneficial insects. Check out our Managing Pests & Weeds page for more information.

Vinegar herbicides and homemade vinegar weed killers may be an option to help mitigate weeds, especially on younger plants. Read more about Vinegar Herbicides.

7. How can I help reduce pesticide use?

  1. Use alternatives in the home/yard/garden/farm: If you have a pest problem in your home or on your property, the first step should be to research it. Once you've identified your pest and its life cycle, the next step is to research what ecologically sound practices you can use. Look for organic and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices. View our Pest Management Guide for lots of resources to help with this process, and visit our pages on Common Pests and Common Weeds for how to deal with your specific pest/weed. If you are a farmer, view our resources For Farmers.
  2. Buy organic, no-spray foods: Farmers who use agroecological methods rather than chemical inputs help preserve topsoil, protect groundwater, and reduce stress on wildlife—including essential pollinators like bees. Local, organic food systems also have a much smaller carbon footprint than conventional industrial farms and their associated large transportation networks. And eating organic foods for just a week can lower the levels of endocrine-disrupting and carcinogenic pesticides in the bloodstream by as much as 95 percent.
  3. Advocate for pesticide bans and other reforms: In addition to what you can do every day to reduce pesticide use, you can also support the banning of toxic pesticides and other regulations that protect people, wildlife and the environment. Check our Action Alerts page to see if there is current legislation that you can support by contacting your representative, or by taking other action. Beyond Pesticides also has a great Action of the Week page.

8. A brief history of pesticide use

Pest control has existed for as long as people have been growing food. The first recorded pesticide use was 4,500 years ago in Mesopotamia with a dust called elemental sulfur to prevent insect and mite infestations. Chemical pesticides, though, were first created for the purpose of war. Fumigants, for example, were used in World War I to drive the enemy out of the trenches. Later, they were repurposed to kill soil-borne insects.

During WWII, Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was employed to kill disease-carrying insects abroad. After the war, DDT’s use was expanded to households and agriculture, and Americans were far more inclined to regard DDT as a miracle than as a menace. In 1962, Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring, opening people’s eyes to the devastating long-term impacts of pesticide use. 

In the Vietnam War, herbicides were tactically used to destroy cover-providing vegetation or to destroy crops that provided food. We now know that the infamous Agent Orange — composed of 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,D) — had deadly impacts on Vietnamese people as well as the American soldiers who handled the chemicals. 

With the rise of globalization in the 1970s, farms were pressured to become bigger and more mechanized. The creation of herbicide-tolerant genetically modified (GM) crops allowed farmers to use chemical herbicides to kill weeds without damaging their crops—such as Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” GM seeds that are resistant to their glyphosate herbicide, Roundup. The false narrative that intensive chemical agriculture is needed to feed the world continues to disrupt sustainable food and farming cultures around the world. 

We see the effects of this pesticide history culminating in what our planet and our communities face today: struggles to access land and resources, displacement and migration, farmers’ dependence on agri-chemicals, broken regulatory systems and outsized corporate influence, and the climate crisis.

9. What laws and regulations are there regarding pesticides?

In the U.S., the main federal law that allows the EPA to regulate pesticides is the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) which was first passed in 1947 and then overhauled in 1972. The Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996 mandated a health-based standard for pesticides used in foods, provided special protections for babies and infants, streamlined the approval of safe pesticides, established incentives for the creation of safer pesticides, and required that pesticide registrations remain current.

10. Where can I send samples for pesticide testing?

For human pesticide exposure testing, contact your primary healthcare provider. To test food, vegetation, soil or water, these labs located in Portland, Oregon offer tests for hundreds of different pesticides: Synergistic Pesticide Laboratory and Columbia Laboratories.

11. I've been exposed to pesticides. What should I do?

We are sorry to hear you experienced drift from a neighbor or were exposed to a pesticide spray. While we are not able to provide health or legal advice, we do have useful information on our I’ve Been Exposed to Pesticides page.

Man harvesting muscadine grapes with bucket

12. Where does NCAP work?

We are a Pacific Northwest regional organization working in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. We also work to impact stronger federal pesticide policy from a regional perspective.

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  • Ncap Staff
    published this page in RESOURCES 2021-05-18 09:56:25 -0700
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