On this page:
- What is a pesticide?
- What is a pest?
- Do household products contain pesticides?
- What is the balance between the risks and benefits of pesticides?
- Are some pesticides safer than others?
- What about pest control devices?
- What substances are not regulated as pesticides?
A pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for:
- repelling, or
- mitigating any pest.
Though often misunderstood to refer only to insecticides, the term pesticide also applies to herbicides, fungicides, and various other substances used to control pests.
Under United States law, a pesticide is also any substance or mixture of substances intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant.
Pests are living organisms that occur where they are not wanted or that cause damage to crops or humans or other animals. Examples include:
- mice and other animals,
- unwanted plants (weeds),
- microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses, and
- prions. (578 kb, 8 pgs, PDF)
Many household products are pesticides. All of these common products are considered pesticides:
- Cockroach sprays and baits
- Insect repellents for personal use.
- Rat and other rodent poisons.
- Flea and tick sprays, powders, and pet collars.
- Kitchen, laundry, and bath disinfectants and sanitizers.
- Products that kill mold and mildew.
- Some lawn and garden products, such as weed killers.
- Some swimming pool chemicals.
By their very nature, most pesticides create some risk of harm - Pesticides can cause harm to humans, animals, or the environment because they are designed to kill or otherwise adversely affect living organisms.
At the same time, pesticides are useful to society - Pesticides can kill potential disease-causing organisms and control insects, weeds, and other pests.
Biologically-based pesticides, such as pheromones and microbial pesticides, are becoming increasingly popular and often are safer than traditional chemical pesticides. In addition, EPA is registering reduced-risk conventional pesticides in increasing numbers.
A pest control "device" is any instrument or contrivance (other than a firearm) intended for trapping, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest. A black light trap is an example of a device.
Unlike pesticides, EPA does not require devices to be registered with the Agency. Devices are subject to certain labeling, packaging, record keeping, and import/export requirements, however. In addition, the establishment where a device is produced must be registered with EPA who will assign an Establishment Number.
For more information on devices, see Pest Control Devices.
The U.S. definition of pesticides is quite broad, but it does have some exclusions:
- Drugs used to control diseases of humans or animals (such as livestock and pets) are not considered pesticides; such drugs are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
- Fertilizers, nutrients, and other substances used to promote plant survival and health are not considered plant growth regulators and thus are not pesticides.
- Biological control agents, except for certain microorganisms, are exempted from regulation by EPA. (Biological control agents include beneficial predators such as birds or ladybugs that eat insect pests.)
- Products which contain certain low-risk ingredients, such as garlic and mint oil, have been exempted from Federal registration requirements, although State regulatory requirements may still apply. For a list of ingredients which may be exempt, and a discussion of allowable label claims for such products, see EPA's Pesticide Registration Notice 2000-6, "Minimum Risk Pesticides Exempted under FIFRA Section 25(b)" (33 KB, PDF)
About EPA's Pesticides Program
Overview of EPA's program
evaluating potential new pesticides and uses, providing for special local needs and emergency situations, reviewing safety of older pesticides, registering pesticide producing establishments, enforcing pesticide requirements, pesticide issues in the works, overview of risk assessment in the pesticide program
Frequently Asked Questions
Answers to questions from the public.
Pesticide Program Reports
Reports produced by the Office of Pesticide Programs
Annual Reports, Performance Management & Accountability, Pesticide Industry Sales and Usage, Progress Reports, Restricted Use Products Reports
Pesticide News Stories
Pesticide related articles appearing in news media