G1982 • Index: Pesticides, General Safety

2009 • Revised December 2015

Reducing Pesticide Use in Sensitive Environments

Clyde L. Ogg, Extension Educator

Jan R. Hygnstrom, Project Manager

Jody M. Green, Extension Program Coordinator

Erin C. Bauer, Extension Assistant

Leah L. Sandall, Extension Assistant

Cheryl A. Alberts, Extension Program Coordinator

Integrated pest management (IPM) practices allow control of pests with little or no use of pesticides, making it a good choice in and around sensitive environments.

Sensitive environments are locations where children, the elderly, immunocompromised, or other susceptible individuals spend time. These locations include schools, child care centers, hospitals, and elderly care facilities. Sensitive environments also can include places where people or animals spend time in confined spaces, such as ships, airplanes, prisons, pet stores, kennels, or zoos.

Pesticides are often used in and around such locations to control pests, including rodents, insects, mites, bats, and weeds, but if misapplied or used too frequently, they can be harmful to human health. Pesticide applications in and around sensitive environments should be considered carefully to prevent exposure to sensitive individuals.

This NebGuide discusses using integrated pest management (IPM), a management approach that advocates monitoring, sanitation, exclusion, trapping, and the possible use of low-toxic pesticides. While we recommend IPM approaches for pest control in sensitive environments, these pesticide reduction approaches can be used anywhere.

Pests and Pesticides

A pesticide is any substance used to prevent, repel, or control pests. In and around sensitive environments, pests include ants, cockroaches, spiders, flies, bed bugs, mice, and rats. Pests also might include bacteria, viruses, and fungi (mold). Outdoors, weeds are considered pests. Pesticides used to control these different types of pests include insecticides, rodenticides, fungicides, disinfectants, and herbicides.

Traditional pest control services may use broad-spectrum pesticides sprayed in areas where people can be easily exposed to them. Sometimes pest control is scheduled regularly, regardless of pest presence.

Table 1. How and where exposure to pesticides can occur.



Direct skin-to-surface or mouth-to-surface contact with contaminated surface


Subsequent hand-to-mouth contact, resulting in ingestion


Subsequent hand-to-eye contact, resulting in absorption


Direct skin contact, resulting in absorption


Breathing pesticide vapors or airborne dust

Turf, courtyards, playgrounds

Figure 1. Correct identification of a pest is essential before attempting control.

Figure 2. Good sanitation removes food and water needed for pest survival.

Figure 3. All entry points must be sealed.

Figure 4. Keep rodent snap trap in a tamper-resistant container.

Figure 5. Clutter provides hiding places for pests and should be eliminated.

Figure 6. Properly fitted door sweeps help keep pests out.

Figure 7. Unscreened windows allow flying insects easy access into buildings.

Figure 8. Repair leaking pipes to help eliminate water that pests need to survive.

Figure 9. Education is the key to a successful IPM program.

Health Considerations

Exposure to pesticides has been known to cause adverse health effects. Rates of illness are higher in people who are more likely to handle pesticides. However, children, the elderly, immunocompromised, and those in confined spaces may be particularly at risk to pesticide toxicity due to immature or compromised organ systems resulting from age or disease, or extended pesticide exposure time due to confinement.

Pesticide exposure can result in coughing, shortness of breath, and other respiratory symptoms; and nausea, vomiting, headaches, and eye irritation. There is also mounting evidence that long-term, chronic exposure to pesticides is associated with cancer, as well as neurologic and reproductive problems.

Completely eliminating pesticides is often impractical; therefore, the goal is to minimize risk by reducing the amount used and by selecting less toxic pesticide products. Integrated pest management is a practice that can significantly reduce the amount of pesticides used, while maintaining control of the pest.

Integrated Pest Management

IPM is a holistic approach to pest control that includes:

Choose lower-risk strategies when developing an IPM program. Consider methods that:

• minimize health risks to humans and the environment.

• minimize disruption of the natural, outdoor environment.

• are least toxic to nontarget species.

• prevent recurrence of the pest infestation.

• are safe and easy to apply.

• are cost-effective.

How to choose a pest management professional (PMP):

• Ask for a written description of this person’s IPM services.

• Does the PMP promote routine use of pesticide sprays?

• If so, find another IPM service provider.

• Discuss current pest problems, conducive conditions, and management recommendations. Do they seem reasonable?

• Are their IPM recommendations consistent with IPM principles?

• Will the PMP provide documentation for training he or she has received about pest identification, IPM, and proper pesticide use?

• Does the PMP seem to be a willing and skilled educator who is able to teach clients about his/her activities?

• Will the PMP require that the IPM manager be present during all service visits? This is necessary to help educate everyone about IPM in your sensitive environment.

• Does the PMP keep written records—pest log, IPM strategies used, etc., for his or her accounts?

How to Reduce Pesticide Use

IPM often emphasizes multiple tactics to successfully manage and suppress pests from an area without relying on the regularly scheduled, preventive use of pesticides. By following IPM, the amount of pesticides used often can be reduced when compared to a traditional pest control approach. To implement IPM in your location, start by developing a written policy and procedural guidelines for pest management. The policy and guidelines should incorporate the following IPM steps:

  1. 1. Appoint an IPM manager. The manager should be a knowledgeable person, such as a custodial staff member or a pest management professional (PMP), competent to conduct the IPM program.
  2. 2. Monitor for pest problems. The manager should routinely inspect the building (and monitor using sticky traps where appropriate), including entrances, windows, food storage and preparation areas, laundering sites, restrooms, and roof areas. The manager also should respond promptly to all pest complaints reported by residents, students, and staff.
  3. 3. Identify the pest and nature of all pest problems. The manager should correctly identify the pest and locate the origin of the problem whenever possible. There are many resources to aid identification, including the UNL Plant and Pest Diagnostic Lab (see the Additional Resources list at the end of this NebGuide), or you can bring specimens into your local Extension office.
  4. 4. Identify and eliminate the sources of the problems. The IPM manager should modify sensitive sites by locating and eliminating common pest-conducive conditions. Use methods such as repairing cracks and crevices, replacing or repairing door sweeps, moving dumpsters away from the building, installing air conditioners to prevent the need for opening windows, installing window screens, and ensuring sanitary conditions to eliminate problems. Additional conditions to look for include:

    • Overflowing dumpsters or dumpsters located too close to the building. Overflowing dumpsters provide food and harborage for many pests including rats, cockroaches, ants, flies, and wasps. Dumpsters placed too close to the building attract pests not only to the dumpster but into the building as well.

    • Unrestrained growth of landscape and vegetation. Trees and shrubs touching buildings can provide easy access for pests.

    • Untidy, cluttered areas, both inside and outdoors (Figure 5). Clutter provides harborage for many pests and makes it more difficult to inspect the area for signs of pests.

    • Pipes that are not well-maintained. Leaking pipes and/or improperly working drains provide an endless food and water supply for pests.

    • Gaps and cracks under entrance doors or created by broken tiles, poorly fitted appliances and cabinets, and other places where pests can hide (Figure 6). Cracks, crevices, and other gaps and holes provide pest harbor-age and can allow access to the structure.

    • Outdated structures and ventilation systems. Older structures often have more defects, which can lead to more pest entry and harborage. Poor ventilation can lead to moisture buildup and mold growth.

    • Unscreened windows that allow flying pests, such as flies and wasps, to enter the building (Figure 7).

  5. 5. Prevention is key. Preventive measures significantly reduce the need for pesticides. Installing new downspouts and repairing ventilation systems are easy to implement and often improve the overall maintenance of the building. Other measures include:

    • Moving dumpsters and food disposal containers away from the structure.

    • Repairing leaking pipes and maintaining open drains (Figure 8).

    • Thorough cleaning of food service areas.

    • Sealing cracks and crevices; installing door sweeps.

    • Carefully adhering to cleaning schedules and strict cleanliness standards.

    • Cleaning gutters and directing water flow away from the building.

    • Installing window screens.

    • Maintaining a vegetative-free zone next to buildings.

    • Educating residents, students, and staff about how their actions affect pest management.

  6. 6. If nonchemical methods fail or are impractical, use pesticides following these guidelines:

    • Use the least-toxic pesticide that is effective. Toxicity is indicated by “signal words” on the label, which include CAUTION, WARNING, and DANGER. Look for labels that include a CAUTION label because these are generally less toxic. Use these before pesticides with WARNING and DANGER labels. Before using any pesticide, however, try sanitation, exclusion, trapping, and other IPM methods to control pests. Only use pesticides when nonchemical methods fail.

    • Use the least-toxic pesticide that minimizes exposure. This often involves selecting a formulation that is inherently less likely to cause hazard (e.g., cockroach gel baits instead of surface or pressurized sprays). It also involves decisions about HOW pesticides are applied. For instance, crack and crevice applications reduce the chance of human contact with pesticides.

    • Choose pesticide formulations that will not become airborne. Avoid formulations that contain solvents, such as those in pressurized spray cans and liquid concentrates that are mixed with water before application. Use dusts only in voids and other areas that are unlikely to be disturbed.

    • Only trained and qualified workers should handle, mix, or apply pesticides. The commercial or noncommercial applicator should be licensed by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

    • The pesticide applicator should read and follow all label instructions, including using the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Risk to the applicator can be reduced by using the least toxic pesticide and by using PPE.

  7. 7. Keep accurate records to document and evaluate overall effectiveness of the IPM program. The IPM manager and applicator should record the type of pests detected before and after undertaking any control measures, including pesticide applications. All measures taken to control the pest should be documented.
  8. 8. Educate everyone about pesticides and IPM (Figure 9). In schools, involve and educate stakeholders, including administration, instructional and support staff, students, and parents. In other sensitive environments (e.g. hospitals, nursing homes, or prisons), educate patients, medical personnel, residents, inmates, and administrators.
  9. 9. Notify everyone involved whenever pesticides are used and advise when it is safe to re-enter. Avoid spraying pesticides when people are present. Restrict access to the treated areas until the pesticide has dried or for as long as the pesticide label recommends.

For More Information

Additional Resources

This publication has been peer reviewed.

UNL Extension publications are available online at http://extension.unl.edu/publications.

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