Pesticides and Public Health

This page focuses on public health problems caused by pests and the role that preventive measures and pesticides may play in protecting people from these health problems.

Why be concerned: Pests such as insects, rodents, and microbes can cause and spread a variety of diseases that pose a serious risk to public health.

What YOU can do: There are a variety of ways that you can control pests and the risks they may pose. Use the links below to learn more about pests, public health, pesticides, and actions you can take to safely control pests and protect your health.

On this page:

Public Health Issues and Pests

Debilitating and deadly diseases that can be caused or spread by pests such as insects, rodents, and microbes pose a serious risk to public health. Examples of significant public health problems that are caused by pests include:

  • Vector-Borne Diseases – Infectious diseases such as West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and rabies can be carried and spread by vector (disease-carrying) species such as mosquitoes, ticks, and rodents. EPA registers several pesticide products, including repellents, that may be used to control the vectors that spread these diseases. Read more about:
  • Asthma and Allergies – Indoor household pests such as cockroaches can contribute to asthma and allergies. In addition to registering products to control these pests, EPA also provides information to the public about safely using these products in homes and schools. Read more about:
  • Microbial Contamination – Various microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and protozoans, can cause microbial contamination in hospitals, public health clinics, and food processing facilities. EPA registers antimicrobial products intended to control these microorganisms and help prevent the spread of numerous diseases. Read more about:
  • Avian Flu - Avian flu, sometimes called bird flu, is an infection that occurs naturally and chiefly in birds. Infections with these viruses can occur in humans, but the risk is generally low for most people. EPA works to register and make available antimicrobial pesticide products (sanitizers or disinfectants) that may be used to kill avian influenza virus on inanimate surfaces and to help prevent the spread of avian flu viruses. These products are typically used by the poultry industry to disinfect their facilities. Read more about avian flu.
  • Prions - Certain proteins found in cells of the central nervous system of humans and animals may exist in abnormal, infectious forms called “prions.” Prions share many characteristics of viruses, and may cause fatal diseases.  In 2004, EPA determined that prions are considered to be a pest under FIFRA, and that products used to control prions are subject to EPA regulation. 
  • Anthrax - Biological agents such as Bacillus anthracis spores can cause a threat to public health and national security. EPA has issued emergency exemptions for several pesticides that were used in anthrax spore decontamination efforts, including (but not limited to): bleach, chlorine dioxide, ethylene oxide, hydrogen peroxide and peroxyacetic acid, methyl bromide, paraformaldehyde, and vaporized hydrogen peroxide. 

Pests of significant health importance, which are pests that pose a widely recognized risk to significant numbers of people, are listed in Pesticide Registration Notice 2002-1.

Find selected EPA-registered disinfectants.

Top of Page

Safely Control Pests and Protect Your Health

EPA, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and many pest control professionals, believes that prevention is the most effective way to control disease-carrying pests and their associated public health risks. The combination of preventive measures and reduced-risk treatment methods to reduce the reliance on, and therefore the corresponding risk from, the use of chemical pesticides is generally known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

Prevent Pests

Pests such as cockroaches, rodents, and mosquitoes need food, water, and shelter. Often, problems involving these pests can be solved just by removing these key items. Some actions you can take to reduce or prevent pest problems include:

  • Making sure food and food scraps are tightly sealed and garbage is regularly removed from the home.
  • Not leaving pet food and water out overnight. Also, if you apply pesticides, pet food and water should be removed from the area.
  • Fixing leaky plumbing and looking for other sources of water, such as trays under house plants.
  • Eliminating standing water in rain gutters, buckets, plastic covers, bird baths, fountains, wading pools, potted plant trays, or any other containers where mosquitoes can breed.
  • Keeping swimming pool water treated and circulating, and draining temporary pools of water or filling them with dirt.
  • Closing off entryways and hiding places (e.g., caulking cracks and crevices around cabinets or baseboards).
  • Making sure window and door screens are "bug tight."
  • Replacing your outdoor lights with yellow "bug" lights which tend to attract fewer mosquitoes than ordinary lights. However, the yellow lights are NOT repellents.

Safely Use Pesticide Products

In addition to preventive measures, traps, bait stations, and other pesticide products (including repellents) can be used to control some pests. These can be used with low risk of exposure to the pesticide, as long as they are kept out of the reach of children and pets and used according to label directions. For assistance choosing an appropriate pest control product:

Pesticides with public health uses are intended to limit the potential for disease, but in order to be effective, they must be properly applied. By their nature, many pesticides may pose some risk to humans, animals, or the environment because they are designed to kill or otherwise adversely affect living organisms. Safely using pesticides depends on using the appropriate pesticide and using it correctly.

The pesticide label is essential to using a pesticide safely and effectively. It contains important information that must be read and followed when using a pesticide product.

Tips for Hiring a Pest Control Professional

If you have a pest issue that you are uncomfortable dealing with yourself, you may wish to hire a pest control professional.

Top of Page

Regulation of Pesticides with Public Health Uses

EPA is responsible under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) for regulating pesticides with public health uses, as well as ensuring that these products do not pose unintended or unreasonable risks to humans, animals, and the environment.

  • Registration – Through registration, EPA evaluates pesticides to ensure that they can be used effectively without posing unreasonable risks to human health and the environment. Read more about pesticide registration.
  • Reregistration – Under reregistration and tolerance reassessment, EPA reviewed older pesticides (those registered before November 1984) to ensure that they meet current scientific and regulatory standards. We completed reregistration in 2008. Read more about pesticide reregistration.
  • Registration Review – Through registration review, EPA plans to review all registered pesticides approximately every 15 years to ensure that they meet current scientific and regulatory standards. Read more about registration review.
  • Emergency Exemptions and Special Local Needs – In cases where unexpected public health issues arise, EPA works to make pesticides available to states or federal agencies for emergency and special local need uses. See information about:

Although pesticides with public health uses follow the same regulatory process as agricultural chemicals, EPA recognizes that there may be some differences, including:

  • Exposure – Pesticide use as part of a public health program may lead to increased exposure for large segments of the population, including exposure to sensitive subpopulations. EPA carefully evaluates human and ecological risks from exposure to pesticides, including bystander and occupational exposure. EPA places special emphasis on children’s health in making regulatory decisions about all pesticides, including pesticides with public health uses.
  • Efficacy – EPA requires scientific evidence that registered products sold to control pests that are known to carry West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and other vector-borne public health threats are effective against the target pest.
  • Benefits – EPA considers the benefits from public health pesticides when making regulatory decisions. The benefits information is supplied from many different stakeholders, including our federal partners. CDC is an important source of benefits information for public health pesticides EPA and CDC entered into an agreement in 2000 to formalize this relationship.
EPA in Action: Pesticides, Public Health, and Disaster Relief Efforts
EPA has plans in place to advise and assist the public in case of a wide variety of potential disasters, but we also realize that our role is limited to certain areas of expertise. As an example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, EPA worked with its regional offices and other federal and state agencies to provide technical and regulatory support to relief and cleanup efforts. EPA coordinated with the Department of Defense in preparation for the wide-scale aerial spraying of insecticides to control mosquitoes and flies, and also shared regulatory and technical information on pest control, pesticide needs, and disposal of orphaned pesticide containers. In order to facilitate the cleanup and re-occupancy of buildings, EPA provided broad guidance on disinfection, molds, and mildews. Find more information on preparing and response to an emergency.

Top of Page

For More Information

Top of Page