Protect Yourself From Herbicide and Pesticide Exposure

Don't get caught flat-footed by herbicide and pesticide exposure. A survivor of the experience describes in detail what you can do to obtain compensation and prevent future incidents.

| May/June 1983

  • pesticide exposure - herbicide damaged leaves
    Walnut tree leaves after 2, 4-D exposure.
    Terry Shafer
  • pesticide exposure - crop dusting helicopter
    Aerial applicators are a common source of herbicide and pesticide exposure. Sprayed chemicals can drift quite far from the intended application.
    Photo courtesy of Kansas State University
  • pesticide exposure - healthy walnut trees before herbicide exposure
    To document herbicide damage, take a series of photographs before and after the harm appears. These are healthy young walnut orchard before herbicide exposure.
    Terry Shafer

  • pesticide exposure - herbicide damaged leaves
  • pesticide exposure - crop dusting helicopter
  • pesticide exposure - healthy walnut trees before herbicide exposure

If you live in a rural area, chances are good that sooner or later you'll come into contact with insecticide, herbicide, or some other toxin a neighbor or government agency has sprayed on nearby forest land, roadsides, or crops. I'd like to give you some ideas on how you might prevent herbicide or pesticide exposure from happening, and on what to do in case you become ill or find yourself with a sick family, dead bees, dying crops, or other property damage because of someone else's careless use of potentially dangerous chemicals.

Plan Ahead

First of all, there are several important steps you should take now, before an incident occurs. To begin, find out who might be spraying in your area — neighbors, county weed control and road maintenance personnel, local pesticide applicators, power companies, etc. — and let those people know that you do not want any such chemicals drifting onto your land. You may think you shouldn't have to do this, but keep in mind that many of these folks might believe they'd actually be doing you a favor by killing that "scruffy waste brush" (your woodlot-to-be) or "all those nasty bugs" (your natural pest-control agents or honey producers).

You should also display "DO NOT SPRAY" signs — marked with arrows and giving the distances to your acreage's appropriate borders — at every roadside corner around your property, to remind the highway-maintenance spray crew to leave your land alone. In addition, call and write your county engineer (or whoever else is responsible for taking care of streets in your area) and ask that person to make certain that all brush-killing sprays are turned off before the maintenance trucks reach your property. At the same time, ask him or her how you can care for your section of the highway right-of-way. Learn which vegetation needs to be controlled where, and why.

Now that you've taken all the preventive steps that you can, arm yourself with the information you'll need if (and it's still quite possible) a spraying incident does occur. To begin, obtain two phone numbers: [1] that of your regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and [2] that of the state agency — it's usually associated with the agriculture department — in charge of enforcing the pesticide-use laws.

If you don't know where the nearest EPA office is, you can find out by calling National Pesticide Information Center. And if you aren't certain about which state agency to contact (and if the NPIC can't tell you), ask your regional EPA office. At any rate, put the two phone numbers where you can quickly find them.

(Note: The EPA directly enforces the pesticide-use law in Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado, so residents of those areas have no state agencies to contact. On the other hand, California residents will want to record the phone number of the appropriate county, not state, agriculture commissioner.)  

If You Are Sprayed

Imagine this scenario: It's two o'clock in the afternoon. You're at home just settling down to enjoy a late lunch, when the quiet atmosphere is broken by the drone of an approaching crop-dusting plane. But wait a minute, what is that guy doing? Why, he's spraying practically right over your house! Worse yet, the wind is blowing toward you, and your children are playing in the yard!

What can you do?

A few years ago, I had no idea how to handle such a situation. And when an incident like that did, indeed, occur, it took me a long time to figure out what I should have done. I'm grateful, though, that others can profit from my experience, by learning how to deal with this sort of attack before being confronted with it.

As soon as a potentially toxic spray starts drifting your way, you'll face two immediate concerns: [1] what to do now to protect yourself, your family, and your property, and [2] what to do now to prevent a recurrence.


If you don't know exactly which chemical is being sprayed and how you can expect to react to it, rush yourself and everyone else inside the house. Close the windows and doors, and shut off any air conditioners or fans that would otherwise pull outside air into your home. If you can, take steps to move your pets and livestock into shelter.

If you suspect that some poison has landed on you despite your efforts, wash immediately (preferably with a detergent) and change your clothes. These precautions are especially important in the case of small children who might have been sprayed. Furthermore, don't use any possibly contaminated food, clothing, or water until you have learned about the pesticide's effects.

And if you feel at all ill, call your doctor at once.

Collect Evidence

In order to keep that sprayer from ever poisoning you again, you'll have to gather some evidence right away. Since I know from experience how difficult it is to think clearly when you're angry and in a panic, I've given you a form, the Pesticide Incident Data Sheet to fill out. First of all, you'll need to note anything that will help identify the pesticide applicator. If you've been sprayed aerially, try to get the plane's N number. (If you can't see it, a description of the aircraft will do.)

You won't need to fill out the rest of the data sheet at the moment, but don't put it off for more than a day. Writing a chronology of the episode as soon as is practical; memories fade, and to refresh yours you'll need that brief blow-by-blow account.

Report the Incident

Above all, work fast. You should be able to corral everyone inside, jot down those notes (such as the airplane's description) that you can take only while the incident is under way, and phone the state pesticide law enforcement agency, all while that plane is still circling overhead.

Give the person at the agency a brief account of the event and say you suspect a violation of the pesticide law. Tell him or her that you want someone to come investigate as soon as possible. In fact, try to get a commitment from an official to arrange a visit right away because you can expect that residues will disappear in two to ten days; those chemical traces will be important — perhaps some of the most important — pieces of evidence you can get. In addition, be sure to find out if you have to file a report with the state in order to meet the statute of limitations for filing a civil suit.

Next, call the regional EPA office and repeat the foregoing process. The individuals there will probably tell you that they'll simply refer your case to the state enforcement agency. That's fine; they're supposed to do that. The purpose of your call to the EPA is to alert its staff to the incident in hopes that they'll check up on the state agency to make certain it handles your case promptly.

Nancy Claytor
4/17/2019 1:19:01 PM

My son and I have Mast Cell syndrome. It is caused by over exposure to petroleum and herbicide products. I had to move into a different neighborhood last fall to get out fast from the home that was making us sick. Spring is here and every neighbor sprays their yards. So this means that there is a yard being sprayed around me every day of the week. Now my neighbor is having his siding sprayed. I am so sick. I need to find a neighborhood that doesn't allow spraying. Is there any such list?

Yara C Perez
9/7/2018 4:42:52 PM

I live, in a trailer rura area,my mobile home is may be the least two inches apart from neighbors. The matience men just sprayed chemicals on the ground I asked one guy he said it a weed killer I asked why weren't we notifed he ignored me and just replied so let the office know after I said legally your suppose to notify tetants. Just turned off A.C. in case was in danger

Yara C Perez
9/7/2018 4:19:41 PM

I live, in a trailer rura area,my mobile home is may be the least two inches apart from neighbors. The matience men just sprayed chemicals on the ground I asked one guy he said it a weed killer I asked why weren't we notifed he ignored me and just replied so let the office know after I said legally your suppose to notify tetants. Just turned off A.C. in case was in danger


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