Guide to the Safe Use of Home and Garden Chemicals

A man using a pump sprayer to apply weed killer on a lawn.
My Garden Life
August 21, 2023
Table of Contents

Along with warm weather comes an array of pests, weeds, and plant diseases. Whether it’s caterpillars munching on your tomato plants, ants in the house, dandelions in your lawn, or mice nesting in the storage shed, there are an array of garden chemicals, including pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides, available to wage your seasonal wars. Just remember – products sold to control pests and diseases are often toxic and can be harmful to you, your family, pets and wildlife if you don’t handle them properly.   

Here are some helpful guidelines to keep in mind when storing or using home and garden chemicals:  

How to Protect Yourself When Applying Garden Chemicals

Our skin easily absorbs chemicals. Areas of the body that most rapidly absorb chemicals (in order of fastest absorption) are the groin area, head, face, palms of the hands, and bottoms of the feet. Pay particular attention to protecting those areas when mixing or applying chemicals or when using granulated products.

  • Even if doing a small job it’s best to wear water-proof gloves when handling garden chemicals. Disposable latex or vinyl gloves are a good option for most jobs. Impenetrable gloves offer protection from liquids but should also be worn when handling granulated products as fine dust can also be absorbed through skin moisture in your palms.
A woman wears blue latex gloves when applying granulated fertilizer on her strawberry plants.
  • Eye protection will prevent accidentally splashing or spraying garden chemicals into the eyes.
  • A face mask or respirator can help prevent breathing in fine mist or dust particles produced from certain products.
  • Keep the national Poison Control phone number handy in case of an accident. The number is: 1-800-222-1222. Know how to identify the active ingredient in a product – this is vital information that emergency caregivers will need.     
A woman wears gloves, glasses, and a long sleeved shirt and pants to protect herself from accidental exposure while applying a pesticide around her home.

How to Find the Active Ingredients on a Pesticide Label

The product label lists all the ingredients contained in a product, usually with the heading “Active Ingredients”. This is the information that will be essential in the event that accidental exposure or ingestion of a garden chemical leads to an emergency. If for any reason this part of the label is not legible (due to tearing, moisture damage, or discoloration) you should be able to find the information by doing an internet search using the name of the product and “label”. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also requires the filing of Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for chemical home and garden products so you could also search online for the product name and “safety data sheet”. 

A close-up view of the active ingredient list on a can of aerosol wasp killer.

What to Do if Your Pet is Exposed to a Poisonous Chemical

If you suspect that your pet may have been exposed to a potentially poisonous substance, you should immediately call your family veterinarian. If that’s not possible, the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) operates a 24-hour emergency call center that can be reached at (888) 426-4435. Just like for a human, you will want to know as much as possible about what product your pet may have been exposed to, so have the label information handy if you have it. 

A tired-looking brown and white puppy rests his head in his paws on a bed pillow.

Safety Tips for Applying Garden Chemicals

  • First of all, make sure you correctly identify the pest or problem. If you aren’t sure then get help either by researching online, seeking help from a local garden center, or contact your local university cooperative extension office for expert guidance.
  • Read the product label of any garden chemical before you purchase it. Make sure the plant or pest you are trying to manage is listed on the label.
  • If mixing chemicals – mix only as much as you know you will use. Ideally you never want to have to dispose of unused chemicals; the goal is to use up products in the way they were intended.
A woman wears rubber gloves while using a hand pump sprayer to apply pesticide on a rose bush.
  • Properly measure concentrated formulations of pesticides. Keep all measuring tools for the garden separate from those used for food.
  • Apply only as much chemical as is needed to do the job. Applying more of a chemical than what the label states is NOT better and could result in damaging non-targeted plants or wildlife.
  • Avoid applying chemicals outdoors when rain is forecast or when it is windy.
  • Don’t apply pesticides or fertilizers on paved surfaces such as concrete. Very little will be absorbed, and most will wash away with rain. Apply chemicals along the outside edge of pavement or use a fine spray to trace along cracks where the chemical will seep into the crack.
Woman spraying insecticide along a crack where ants are emerging and making mounds.

How to Store Home and Garden Chemicals Properly

Improperly stored chemicals can have lethal consequences. The following are some suggestions from the Penn State Pesticide Education Program of the College of Agricultural Sciences on safely handling and storing pesticides, but these tips could apply to any potentially toxic substances you might use around your home or garden, indoors or outdoors.

•     Follow all storage instructions listed on the package label.

•     Always store chemical products in their original containers. In addition to the proper identification of the contents, important safety information specific to that product is listed on the container. Such information includes what to do if accidental poisoning takes place, emergency contact numbers and necessary first aid steps.

•     Keep home and garden chemicals stored out of reach of children and pets. When possible, store them in a locked but ventilated cabinet.

•     Pesticides – or other toxic chemicals – should never be stored in the same location as food, medical supplies or animal feed (such as your pet’s food).

•     Never transfer pesticides to soft drink bottles or other containers, including milk jugs, juice or water bottles or coffee cups. It is easy for children and even adults to confuse them for something to drink or eat.

•     Use child-resistant packaging correctly. Close containers tightly and properly after use. Just because a product says ‘resistant’, that does not make if child-proof.

•     Don’t stockpile chemicals. Only buy what you will use that session or season. The less pesticide remaining after it is needed, the lower the risk of accidents.

A man uses a pump sprayer to apply a herbicide to his lawn.

•     Pesticides and other home, lawn, or garden chemicals should be stored away from places where flooding is possible or where spills or leaks could run into drains, surface water or water sheds.

•     Pesticides that are flammable liquids should be stored away from the living area or where there is any risk of sparks such as with gas grills, furnaces and power lawn equipment.

•     Never store pesticides or fungicides in the application equipment. To avoid the problem of having excess product, only mix what is needed for that application. If excess mixture remains after application, apply where appropriate to other parts of your property.

•     When in doubt as to the identity of a product or container, do not use it. Be sure to dispose of it properly.

How to Properly Dispose of Home and Garden Chemical Containers

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers all the following as potentially hazardous household waste that may require special care when disposing of them: products, such as paints, cleaners, oils, batteries, and pesticides can all contain hazardous ingredients and residues.

A cardboard box containing containers from insecticides, herbicide, paint, and motor oil being readied to take to a disposal site for hazardous materials.

Improper disposal of the products on this list can include pouring them down the drain, flushing down the toilet, pouring on the ground, into storm sewers, or in some cases putting containers out with the regular trash. Improper disposal can present a threat to humans, pets, and wildlife as well as contaminate septic systems, wastewater treatment facilities, soils, and groundwater. Here are some tips on how to find the best way to dispose of your chemical household wastes and containers:

  • Look for information on how to properly dispose of a container on the product label.
  • Contact the product manufacturer if further instructions are needed. Many product labels now include the manufacturer’s website information where you can usually find a “contact us” form.
  • Find out if your local community has periodic drop-off events to collect items that can’t be disposed of in your regular trash.
  • Contact your home waste disposal service for suggestions on where and how to dispose of leftover chemicals and containers locally, or to learn if they offer those services.
  • Seek safer alternatives to chemical solutions, such as manually pulling weeds instead of applying an herbicide, to avoid having to dispose of potentially hazardous wastes later.
A woman wearing gardening gloves pulls dandelions from the lawn by hand.

Whenever possible, try to find a non-chemical solution to a problem first. Use pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides only when nonchemical methods are ineffective and pests, weeds, or plant disease are reaching intolerable levels. Try to select the least toxic product you can that will still be effective in combatting your problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers lots of information on safe practices for controlling pests and diseases in your home or garden along with details on the toxicity of certain chemicals based on the most current research. 

Explore additional options for controlling insect pests in our article, 9 Methods to Control Insect Pests.

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