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Updated Jul 18, 2022

UNDERSTANDING PESTICIDE LABELS TO PROTECT WILDLIFE

The photo shows ducks in a wetland. Pesticide products used on land in your garden and landscape can make their way into waterways. The chemicals in pesticides can harm wildlife and aquatic organisms if they are exposed to them.

What are Pesticides?

Pesticides are products designed to kill rodents, weeds, mosses, insects, plant diseases, slugs, and snails. Household disinfectants such as bleach and ammonia are considered pesticides. Flea-killer products are too.

JUMP TO

  1. Aquatic Organisms—Understand Pesticide Risks, What Labels Say & What It Means
  2. Fish—Understand Pesticide Risks, What Labels Say & What It Means
  3. Birds—Understand Pesticide Risks, What Labels Say & What It Means

Pesticide risk reduction tips

  • Only use pesticides when necessary. Tolerate harmless pests.
  • Minimize pest problems through good plant selection, installation, and ongoing care. By using the right watering, fertilizing, and sanitation practices, you should be able to prevent most serious plant problems.
  • When applying a pesticide on land, take precautions to keep the spray or granules out of waterways. Use a combination of untreated buffer areas, vegetative strips, and non-chemical management near water.
  • Store and dispose of pesticides properly to keep them away from wildlife. See How to Store Pesticides.

FOR QUESTIONS ABOUT PESTICIDES

The National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC)  can answer questions about pest control chemicals.
 1-800-858-7378 or npic@ace.orst.edu  

Overview

  • Chemicals in the environment, including pesticides, work their way up the food chain. They can harm wildlife such as fish and birds.
  • The dose determines the poison for different animals. Tiny organisms can be harmed by small exposures to pesticides.
  • Endangered salmon species rely on waterways throughout the Pacific Northwest for spawning habitat.
  • Endangered birds like the Streaked Horned Lark are also at risk. Birds, fish, and mammals rely on smaller organisms for food.

Keys for Success

  • Use information provided on pesticide labels to understand the risks of a product and how to apply it.
  • Look for information about hazards to pollinators in the ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS section of the pesticide label.
  • Follow the instructions to minimize risks.
  • Follow the instructions to maximize benefits.
Gloved hands holding rodenticide package to read label

Weston Miller, Oregon State University

Our Top Tip

IF YOU HAVE TO USE POISON BAIT FOR RODENTS

Keep yourself, children, pets, and wildlife safe from harm by ALWAYS reading the entire label front to back. Review the instructions even for brands you know. It’s our best advice for your well-being.

Tips for Poison Baits

Use bait stations for rodenticides to reduce the risk of poisoning to children, pets, and wildlife by limiting access. Never leave loose bait unattended.

Poisoned rodents may be easy prey for pets and wildlife. If they eat enough, the predators may die.

Select rodenticides with cholecalciferol or bromethalin. They are less likely to harm predators compared to other products that contain more common ingredients, the anticoagulants.

See How to Get Rid of Mice and How to Get Rid of Rats for details about controlling rodents, including trapping methods.

Aquatic Organisms—Understand Pesticide Risks, What Labels Say & What It Means
  • Look for the ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS section of the product label.  It may be inside a booklet or pamphlet.

Look for the language below on the label:

  • “To protect the environment, DO NOT allow pesticides to enter or run off into storm drains, drainage ditches, gutters, or surface waters.”
  • “Applying this product in calm weather when rain is not predicted for the next 24 hours will help to ensure that wind or rain does not blow or wash pesticide off the treatment area.” This is a statement found on some pesticide labels.
Tiny aquatic organism

Hajime Watanabe, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

Tiny aquatic organisms are exposed to pesticides that enter waterways. Toxins in the water (including pesticides) accumulate in organisms. They are passed up the food chain as shown in the diagram to the right.

Aquatic food chain diagram

The diagram shows an aquatic food chain. The micro-organisms are eaten by larger organisms, which are then eaten by fish and other vertebrates.

WHAT THE LABEL SAYS & WHAT THAT MEANS FOR AQUATIC ORGANISMS

  • Do you want to interpret language that you see on a pesticide label?
  • Learn what the information about aquatic organisms on pesticide labels means.

What the Label Says: “This product is toxic to aquatic organisms.”

What That Means: This means the product contains an active ingredient that kills 50% of aquatic invertebrates (tiny organisms with no backbone) exposed to 1 ppm (part per million) of the pesticide in water. That’s highly toxic! One ppm is a very small amount, similar to one minute in two years, or one inch in 16 miles.


What if there is no mention of aquatic organisms? That doesn’t mean the product is harmless.

It means that more than 1 ppm is required to kill 50% of tested populations of aquatic invertebrates. Even two ppm is a very small amount, like two minutes in two years, or two inches in 16 miles.

Fish—Understand Pesticide Risks, What Labels Say & What It Means
  • Look for the ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS section of the product label. It may be inside a booklet or pamphlet.
  • To protect the environment, DON’T allow pesticides to enter or run off into storm drains, drainage ditches, gutters, or surface waters.
  • “Applying this product in calm weather when rain is not predicted for the next 24 hours will help to ensure that wind or rain does not blow or wash pesticide off the treatment area.” This is a statement you may see on pesticide labels.
  • When applying a pesticide on land, take precautions to keep the spray or granules out of waterways.
  • Use a combination of untreated buffer areas, vegetative strips, and alternative methods near water. See How to Keep Pesticides Out of Waterways.
Juvenile salmon in stream

Pacific Southwest Region USFWS from Sacramento, US, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fish such as the juvenile salmon in the photo are at risk from pesticide exposure in waterways.

Salmon spawning in stream

Salmon start their life in fresh water. Then they swim downstream to the ocean where they feed. They return to freshwater streams to mate as shown in the photo. They are at risk of exposure to pesticides and other toxins throughout their life cycle.

WHAT THE LABEL SAYS AND WHAT THAT MEANS FOR FISH

  • Do you want to interpret language that you see on a pesticide label? 
  • Learn what the information about fish on pesticide labels means.

What the Label Says: “This product is toxic to fish.”

What That Means: This means the product contains an active ingredient that kills 50% of fish exposed to 1 ppm (part per million) of the pesticide in water. That’s highly toxic! One ppm is a very small amount, similar to one minute in two years, or one inch in 16 miles.


What the Label Says: “This product is extremely toxic to fish.”

What That Means: This means the US EPA is aware of actual incidents—fish fatalities—involving this product. The DIRECTIONS FOR USE section of the label will describe specific, required actions to prevent runoff into fish-bearing streams.


What if there is no mention of fish? That doesn’t mean the product is harmless to fish.

It means that more than 1 ppm is required to kill 50% of tested fish populations. Even two ppm is a very small amount, comparable to two minutes in two years, or two inches in 16 miles.

Birds—Understand Pesticide Risks, What Labels Say & What It Means
  • Look for the ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS section of the product label.  It may be inside a booklet or pamphlet.
  • Pesticides can harm birds directly and indirectly.
  • The effects may be lethal, or sublethal. Sublethal effects can include stress, illness, and changes in behavior.
Hummingbird in nest

Birds are at risk from exposure to pesticides. They eat seeds and other animals that might contain pesticides.

Ducks in wetland

SteveOehlenschlager, iStock

Wetland birds such as the ducks shown in the photo eat plants, seeds, and animals such as fish.

WHAT THE LABEL SAYS AND WHAT THAT MEANS FOR BIRDS

  • Do you want to interpret language that you see on a pesticide label?
  • Learn what the information about birds on pesticide labels means.

What the Label Says: “This product is toxic to birds.”

What That Means: This means the product contains an active ingredient that killed 50% of birds who ate less than 100mg of pesticide per kilogram of their body weight. Songbirds often weigh less than 3 ounces, so a fatal dose might be as small as three-hundredths of an ounce, or less than one gram. That’s highly toxic.


What the Label Says: “This product is extremely toxic to birds.”

What That Means: This means the US EPA is aware of actual incidents—bird fatalities—involving this product. The active ingredient killed at least 50% of birds who ate less than 100mg of pesticide per kilogram of their body weight. That’s highly toxic.


What if there is no mention of birds? That doesn’t mean the product is harmless to birds.

It means that more than 1 gram is required to kill most birds that weigh about 3 ounces. Some species are more sensitive than others.

Content provided by Kaci Buhl and Weston Miller.

 Peer reviewed by OSU Department of Horticulture.

Photo of Kaci Buhl

Kaci Buhl

At the state level, I lead the Pesticide Safety Education Program (PSEP). The program hosts live recertification events around the state, serving over 1,000 licensed pesticide applicators each year. We also produce web-based training modules and license-preparation study manuals. Special training for unlicensed pesticide applicators is also available through a grant from the USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. The PSEP at OSU works closely with the Oregon Department of Agriculture's Pesticides Division.

Photo of Weston Miller

Weston Miller

Project Founder and Content Writer

Weston Miller served as Community and Urban Horticulture faculty for Oregon State University Extension Service for Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington Counties. Weston is an author for content for this website. He developed funding partnerships with Portland area agencies to initiate and build out the Solve Pest Problems website focused on this goals: