What to Do in a Pesticide Emergency
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
1. The first step
is to 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 people about any disabilities (chemical sensitivities,
allergies, and asthma, for example) that might cause their spraying to
deny you access to your own property and the use of public facilities.
(This is an approach that is successful for some people.) If you have
a farm that is certified organic where the certification is in danger,
some people respond to lost money. Similarly, bees are vulnerable to insecticides.
(On the other hand, some people worry that notifying people about such
things will provoke spiteful pesticide attacks. Use your best judgment
2. The second step
is to ask those people who might spray near you to notify you in advance
so that you can protect yourself, your family, and your property.
experience of many people is that the times that they don't notify you
are the times when the spraying is worst--for example, when they've been
waiting for days for the wind to die down, and they finally give up.)
However, if you are notified in advance, it will help in several ways.
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/NCAMP 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 with "do
not spray" signs and notify the appropriate county/township personnel.
Some cities and counties
require a specific sign that they will recognize and you must register
for it at the appropriate office. (Notifying the appropriate person may
not be as easy as it sounds. For example, in some townships, the road
grader is the one who sprays. He may not work in an office. You have to
reach him at home, and he may not return messages.)
If you know that there will be spraying in your area:
Try to find out
what will be sprayed, and get a copy of the label and the material safety
data sheet (MSDS).
If the sprayer 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
If it's possible,
get sensitive individuals out of the area during and immediately after
(Ha! Where to? Usually
when they are spraying one place, they are spraying all over. That's why
we said, "If it's possible...") If you can't, 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 a lot of things, including the temperature (chemicals
vaporize faster in hotter weather), rain (some will wash off, but some
will be activated by rain), wind direction (towards you or away), and,
of course, what was sprayed. If the stuff is smelly, then your nose can
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
smelly stuff breaks down.
When driving through
an area that has been sprayed, close your windows and vents, putting your
car's fan on maximum recirculation.
Don't allow pets
to run through sprayed areas.
Besides the hazards to them, they can track pesticides into the house,
where they last longer than they would outside.
5. When they spray:
Don't forget things like clothes hanging on clotheslines!
and write it down:
- Date and time.
- Description and/or
photos of plane, truck, or other application device:
- Plane: number,
color, flight pattern, how turns were made, how many 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 like how smoke rises, do leaves rustle,
do flags extend, do branches move, etc.
- Humidity and sky conditions.
- Any effects you notice immediately: smell, strange behavior of
bees, irritation to eyes or mucous membranes, headache, nausea,
6. If there is
drift, 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 the most
urgent steps have been taken care of:
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 ("active
ingredients"). Try to get both. Other important identifiers are the
Chemical Abstracts System (CAS) numbers for the active ingredients and
Find out possible
ill effects of exposure and what you can do to mitigate them.
An important source of information is the pesticide label. The label
is somewhat useful as a source of information about the pesticide hazards,
but it is also a legal document that prescribes application methods and
precautions. It may be available from the applicator, the state agency or Beyond
MAYBE Wash herbicide
residues off valuable trees and shrubs after taking samples.
You should weigh several things before undertaking this step. 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.)
Finally, some herbicides are activated by water, in which case you should
make sure to eliminate all traces of the herbicide.
Document the damage:
- 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 their effects 1-7 days after the application. Take photographs
immediately after the application to show condition of plants before
the chemical affects them, and later take follow-up shots from the
same angles. (Take notes.) Try to take pictures or series of pictures
that focus on leaves and growing tips of plants, but which 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.
- In the case of
physical illness of people or animals, see a physician or veterinarian
to confirm symptoms, obtain a diagnosis, and receive treatment. Get
a written report signed by the physician or veterinarian. (Note: Many
physicians and veterinarians are not familiar with the symptoms of
pesticide poisoning, many of which resemble symptoms of a cold or
flu. Tell them about your exposure, and ask them to check the symptoms.
Blood or urine tests may be necessary.)
- 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.
- Try to eliminate
other possible causes for the damage: disease, pest damage, drought,
low oxygen levels in ponds, etc.
- 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.)
- Write all this
down as soon as possible.
- 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.
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. 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 them whether you need to take any other
steps if you think you might be seeking 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.
Some things to do if you may pursue this route:
- 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 meanwhile.)
- If you
hire an attorney, try to find one who is familiar with this
area of law. I have heard many stories of people who suspected
that their attorneys were being paid off by the pesticide applicator,
especially in rural areas. Beyond Pesticides, NCAP, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, or your chapter of the Sierra Club can try to help you locate someone who won't do that. Here is some advice about choosing an attorney.
- Above, asthma
was mentioned as a disability. Chemical sensitivity is now recognized
by some agencies (eg, HUD) as a disability protected by the Americans
with Disabilities Act. This is a possible way of protecting you in
- 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.
that the damage was caused by the applicator's use of a pesticide:
- The documentation
- The report of
the state agency investigation
analyses. These should be performed by the state agency, but
if they do not respond promptly, then 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. Be sure 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 or NCAP.
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
- 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
Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP monitors the effectiveness of state and federal
enforcement programs, so we will know the real risks associated with pesticides.
us what happened and how well the state agency and EPA responded.
10. Join Beyond
Pesticides/NCAMP and help eliminate pesticide problems.
Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP 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 us by joining us