Pesticides are substances or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest. A pesticide is generally a chemical or biological agent (such as a virus, bacterium, antimicrobial or disinfectant) that through its effect deters, incapacitates, kills or otherwise discourages pests. Target pests can include insects, plant pathogens, weeds, molluscs, birds, mammals, fish, nematodes (roundworms), and microbes that destroy property, cause nuisance, spread disease or are vectors for disease. Although there are human benefits to the use of pesticides, some also have drawbacks, such as potential toxicity to humans and other animals. According to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, 9 of the 12 most dangerous and persistent organic chemicals are pesticides. Pesticides are categorized into four main substituent chemicals: herbicides; fungicides; insecticides and bactericides.


Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has defined the term of pesticide as:any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying or controlling any pest, including vectors of human or animal disease, unwanted species of plants or animals causing harm during or otherwise interfering with the production, processing, storage, transport or marketing of food, agricultural commodities, wood and wood products or animal feedstuffs, or substances which may be administered to animals for the control of insects, arachnids or other pests in or on their bodies. The term includes substances intended for use as a plant growth regulator, defoliant, desiccant or agent for thinning fruit or preventing the premature fall of fruit. Also used as substances applied to crops either before or after harvest to protect the commodity from deterioration during storage and transport.

Type of Pesticide Target Pest Group
Algicides or Algaecides Algae
Avicides Birds
Bactericides Bacteria
Fungicides Fungi and Oomycetes
Insecticides Insects
Miticides or Acaricides Mites
Molluscicides Snails
Nematicides Nematodes
Rodenticides Rodents
Virucides Viruses

Subclasses of pesticides include: herbicides, insecticides,fungicides, rodenticides, pediculicides, and biocides.

Pesticides can be classified by target organism, chemical structure, and physical state. Pesticides can also be classed as inorganic, synthetic, or biologicals (biopesticides), although the distinction can sometimes blur. Biopesticides include microbial pesticides and biochemical pesticides. Plant-derived pesticides, or "botanicals", have been developing quickly. These include the pyrethroids, rotenoids, nicotinoids, and a fourth group that includes strychnine and scilliroside.

Many pesticides can be grouped into chemical families. Prominent insecticide families include organochlorines, organophosphates, and carbamates. Organochlorine hydrocarbons (e.g. DDT) could be separated into dichlorodiphenylethanes, cyclodiene compounds, and other related compounds. They operate by disrupting the sodium/potassium balance of the nerve fiber, forcing the nerve to transmit continuously. Their toxicities vary greatly, but they have been phased out because of their persistence and potential to bioaccumulate.:239-240 Organophosphate and carbamates largely replaced organochlorines. Both operate through inhibiting the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, allowing acetylcholine to transfer nerve impulses indefinitely and causing a variety of symptoms such as weakness or paralysis. Organophosphates are quite toxic to vertebrates, and have in some cases been replaced by less toxic carbamates. Thiocarbamate and dithiocarbamates are subclasses of carbamates. Prominent families of herbicides include pheoxy and benzoic acid herbicides (e.g. 2,4-D), triazines (e.g. atrazine), ureas (e.g. diuron), and Chloroacetanilides (e.g. alachlor). Phenoxy compounds tend to selectively kill broadleaved weeds rather than grasses. The phenoxy and benzoic acid herbicides function similar to plant growth hormones, and grow cells without normal cell division, crushing the plants nutrient transport system. Triazines interfere with photosynthesis. Many commonly used pesticides are not included in these families, including glyphosate.

Pesticides can be classified based upon their biological mechanism function or application method. Most pesticides work by poisoning pests. A systemic pesticide moves inside a plant following absorption by the plant. With insecticides and most fungicides, this movement is usually upward (through the xylem) and outward. Increased efficiency may be a result. Systemic insecticides, which poison pollen and nectar in the flowers, may kill bees and other needed pollinators.

In 2009, the development of a new class of fungicides called paldoxins was announced. These work by taking advantage of natural defense chemicals released by plants called phytoalexins, which fungi then detoxify using enzymes. The paldoxins inhibit the fungi's detoxification enzymes. They are believed to be safer and greener.

Parasitic plants

Parasitic plants such as mistletoe and dodder are included in the study of phytopathology. Dodder, for example, is used as a conduit either for the transmission of viruses or virus-like agents from a host plant to a plant that is not typically a host or for an agent that is not graft-transmissible.

Physiological plant disorders

Significant abiotic disorders can be caused by:


  1. Drought
  2. Frost damage, and breakage by snow and hail
  3. Flooding and poor drainage
  4. Nutrient deficiency
  5. Salt deposition and other soluble mineral excesses (e.g., gypsum)
  6. Wind (windburn, and breakage by hurricanes and tornadoes)
  7. Lightning and wildfire (also often man-made)

    Man-made (arguably not abiotic, but usually regarded as such)

  1. Soil compaction
  2. Pollution of air, soil, or both
  3. Salt from winter road salt application or irrigation
  4. Herbicide over-application
  5. Salt deposition and other soluble mineral excesses (e.g., gypsum)
  6. Poor education and training of people working with plants (e.g. lawnmower damage to trees)
  7. Vandalism


Pesticides are used to control organisms that are considered to be harmful. For example, they are used to kill that can transmit potentially deadly diseases like West Nile virus, yellow fever, and malaria. They can also kill bees, wasps or ants that can cause allergic reactions. Insecticides can protect animals from illnesses that can be caused by parasites such as fleas. Pesticides can prevent sickness in humans that could be caused by moldy food or diseased produce. Herbicides can be used to clear roadside weeds, trees and brush. They can also kill invasive weeds that may cause environmental damage. Herbicides are commonly applied in ponds and lakes to control algae and plants such as water grasses that can interfere with activities like swimming and fishing and cause the water to look or smell unpleasant.Uncontrolled pests such as termites and mould can damage structures such as houses. Pesticides are used in grocery stores and food storage facilities to manage rodents and insects that infest food such as grain. Each use of a pesticide carries some associated risk.

Pesticides can save farmers' money by preventing crop losses to insects and other pests. One study found that not using pesticides reduced crop yields by about 10%. Another study, conducted in 1999, found that a ban on pesticides in the United States may result in a rise of food prices, loss of jobs, and an increase in world hunger.

DDT, sprayed on the walls of houses, is an organochloride that has been used to fight malaria since the 1950s. Recent policy statements by the World Health Organization have given stronger support to this approach. Dr. Arata Kochi, WHO's malaria chief, said, "One of the best tools we have against malaria is indoor residual house spraying. Of the dozen insecticides WHO has approved as safe for house spraying, the most effective is DDT." However, since then, an October 2007 study has linked breast cancer from exposure to DDT prior to puberty. Poisoning may also occur due to use of DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons by entering the human food chain when animal tissues are affected. Symptoms include nervous excitement, tremors, convulsions or death. Scientists estimate that DDT and other chemicals in the organophosphate class of pesticides have saved 7 million human lives since 1945 by preventing the transmission of diseases such as malaria, bubonic plague, sleeping sickness, and typhus. However, DDT use is not always effective, as resistance to DDT was identified in Africa as early as 1955, and by 1972 nineteen species of mosquito worldwide were resistant to DDT. A study for the World Health Organization in 2000 from Vietnam established that non-DDT malaria controls were significantly more effective than DDT use. The ecological effect of DDT on organisms is an example of bioaccumulation.

Environmental impact of pesticides

The environmental impact of pesticides is often greater than what is intended by those who use them. Over 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species, including nontarget species, air, water, bottom sediments, and food. Though there can be benefits using pesticides, inappropriate use can counterproductively increase pest resistance and kill the natural enemies of pests. Many users are inadequately informed about potential short and long-term risks, and the necessary precautions in the correct application of such toxic chemicals are not always made. Pesticides can contaminate unintended land and water when they are sprayed aerially or allowed to run off fields, or when they escape from production sites and storage tanks or are inappropriately discarded.

The amount of pesticide that migrates from the intended application area is influenced by the particular chemical's properties: its propensity for binding to soil, its vapor pressure, its water solubility, and its resistance to being broken down over time. Factors in the soil, such as its texture, its ability to retain water, and the amount of organic matter contained in it, also affect the amount of pesticide that will leave the area. Some pesticides contribute to global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer.

Environmental impact of pesticides: water

Pesticide impacts on aquatic systems are often studied using a hydrology transport model to study movement and fate of chemicals in rivers and streams. As early as the 1970s quantitative analysis of pesticide runoff was conducted in order to predict amounts of pesticide that would reach surface waters.

There are four major routes through which pesticides reach the water: it may drift outside of the intended area when it is sprayed, it may percolate, or leach, through the soil, it may be carried to the water as runoff, or it may be spilled, for example accidentally or through neglect. They may also be carried to water by eroding soil. Factors that affect a pesticide's ability to contaminate water include its water solubility, the distance from an application site to a body of water, weather, soil type, presence of a growing crop, and the method used to apply the chemical.

Maximum limits of allowable concentrations for individual pesticides in public bodies of water are set by the Environmental Protection Agency in the US. Similarly, the government of the United Kingdom sets Environmental Quality Standards (EQS), or maximum allowable concentrations of some pesticides in bodies of water above which toxicity may occur. The European Union also regulates maximum concentrations of pesticides in water.

Environmental impact of pesticides: Soil

Many of the chemicals used in pesticides are persistent soil contaminants, whose impact may endure for decades and adversely affect soil conservation.

The use of pesticides decreases the general biodiversity in the soil. Not using the chemicals results in higher soil quality, with the additional effect that more organic matter in the soil allows for higher water retention. This helps increase yields for farms in drought years, when organic farms have had yields 20-40% higher than their conventional counterparts. A smaller content of organic matter in the soil increases the amount of pesticide that will leave the area of application, because organic matter binds to and helps break down pesticides.

Degradation and sorption are both factors which influence the persistence of pesticides in soil. Depending on the chemical nature of the pesticide, such processes control directly the transportation from soil to water, and in turn to air and our food. Breaking down organic substances, degradation, involves interactions among microorganisms in the soil. Sorption affects bioaccumulation of pesticides which are dependant on organic matter in the soil. Weak organic acids have been shown to be weakly sorbed by soil, because of pH and mostly acidic structure. Sorbed chemicals have been shown to be less accessible to microorganisms. Aging mechanisms are poorly understood but as residence times in soil increase, pesticide residues become more resistant to degradation and extraction as they lose biological activity.

Environmental impact of pesticides: Effect on plants

Nitrogen fixation, which is required for the growth of higher plants, is hindered by pesticides in soil. The insecticides DDT, methyl parathion, and especially pentachlorophenol have been shown to interfere with legume-rhizobium chemical signaling. Reduction of this symbiotic chemical signaling results in reduced nitrogen fixation and thus reduced crop yields. Root nodule formation in these plants saves the world economy $10 billion in synthetic nitrogen fertilizer every year.

Pesticides can kill bees and are strongly implicated in pollinator decline, the loss of species that pollinate plants, including through the mechanism of Colony Collapse Disorder, in which worker bees from a beehive or Western honey bee colony abruptly disappear. Application of pesticides to crops that are in bloom can kill honeybees, which act as pollinators. The USDA and USFWS estimate that US farmers lose at least $200 million a year from reduced crop pollination because pesticides applied to fields eliminate about a fifth of honeybee colonies in the US and harm an additional 15%.

On the other side, pesticides have some direct harmful effect on plant including poor root hair development, shoot yellowing and reduced plant growth.

Environmental impact of pesticides: Effect on plants: Humans

Pesticides can enter the human body through inhalation of aerosols, dust and vapor that contain pesticides; through oral exposure by consuming food and water; and through dermal exposure by direct contact of pesticides with skin. Pesticides are sprayed onto food, especially fruits and vegetables, they secrete into soils and groundwater which can end up in drinking water, and pesticide spray can drift and pollute the air.

The effects of pesticides on human health are more harmful based on the toxicity of the chemical and the length and magnitude of exposure. Farm workers and their families experience the greatest exposure to agricultural pesticides through direct contact with the chemicals. But every human contains a percentage of pesticides found in fat samples in their body. Children are more susceptible and sensitive to pesticides because they are still developing and have a weaker immune system than do adults. Children may be exposed due to their closer proximity to the floor and natural tendency to put contaminated objects in their mouth, and also because children tend to spend more time at home in a potentially contaminated environment. Hand to mouth contact will be dependent on the age of the child, much like lead exposure, typically from dust within the home. Children under the age of six months are more apt to experience exposure from breast milk and inhalation of small particles. Pesticides may be absorbed through dermal contact, ingestion, and inhalation. Pesticides tracked into the home from family members increase the risk of toxic pesticide exposure which is normally area specific. Also, toxic residue in food may contribute to a child’s exposure to a certain pesticide. The chemicals can bioaccumulate in the body over time.

Exposure to pesticides can range from mild skin irritation to birth defects, tumors, genetic changes, blood and nerve disorders, endocrine disruption, and even coma or death. Developmental effects have been associated with pesticides. Recent increases in childhood cancers in throughout North America, such as leukemia, may be a result of genotoxic and nongenotoxic pesticides due to somatic cell mutations. Insecticides targeted to disrupt insects can have harmful effects on the nervous systems of mammals, due to basic similarities in system structure. Both chronic and acute alterations have been observed in those who are exposed. Pesticides can act in the promotion and proliferation of cancer while causing hormone imbalance. DDT and its breakdown product DDE, with levels still present in the environment, despite its ban, are known to disturb estrogenic activity and possibly lead to breast cancer. Exposure to pesticides, for example DDT, in fetal stages has been proven to alter male penis size in animals to that much smaller than average as well as develop undescended testicles. Exposure to pesticides may occur in postnatal early stages of development, in utero, and even if either parent was exposed before conception took place. Reproductive disruption has the potential to occur by chemical reactivity and through structural changes to a system.


There are two levels of benefits for pesticide use, primary and secondary. Primary benefits are direct gains from the use of pesticides and secondary benefits are effects that are more long-term.

Primary benefits

1. Controlling pests and plant disease vectors

  • Improved crop/livestock yields
  • Improved crop/livestock quality
  • Invasive species controlled

2. Controlling human/livestock disease vectors and nuisance organisms

  • Human lives saved and suffering reduced
  • Animal lives saved and suffering reduced
  • Diseases contained geographically

3. Prevent of control organisms that harm other human activities and structures

  • Drivers view unobstructed
  • Tree/brush/leaf hazards prevented
  • Wooden structures protected

Secondary benefits

1. Community benefits

  • Farm and agribusiness revenues
  • Nutrition and health improved
  • Food safety and security

2. National benefits

  • Workforce productivity increased
  • Increased export revenues
  • National agriculture economy

3. Global benefits

  • Assured safe and diverse food supply
  • Less greenhouse gas
  • Reduced civil unrest


Alternatives to pesticides are available and include methods of cultivation, use of biological pest controls (such as pheromones and microbial pesticides), genetic engineering, and methods of interfering with insect breeding. Application of composted yard waste has also been used as a way of controlling pests. These methods are becoming increasingly popular and often are safer than traditional chemical pesticides. In addition, EPA is registering reduced-risk conventional pesticides in increasing numbers.

Cultivation practices include polyculture (growing multiple types of plants), crop rotation, planting crops in areas where the pests that damage them do not live, timing planting according to when pests will be least problematic, and use of trap crops that attract pests away from the real crop. In the U.S., farmers have had success controlling insects by spraying with hot water at a cost that is about the same as pesticide spraying.

Release of other organisms that fight the pest is another example of an alternative to pesticide use. These organisms can include natural predators or parasites of the pests. Biological pesticides based on entomopathogenic fungi, bacteria and viruses cause disease in the pest species can also be used.

Interfering with insects' reproduction can be accomplished by sterilizing males of the target species and releasing them, so that they mate with females but do not produce offspring. This technique was first used on the screwworm fly in 1958 and has since been used with the medfly, the tsetse fly, and the gypsy moth. However, this can be a costly, time consuming approach that only works on some types of insects.

Another alternative to pesticides is the thermal treatment of soil through steam. Soil steaming kills pest and increases soil health.

In India, traditional pest control methods include using Panchakavya, the "mixture of five products." The method has recently experienced a resurgence in popularity due in part to use by the organic farming community.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Soil contamination