Risk of Exposure to Pesticides

Exposure to pesticides can affect human health. Pesticides can enter the body or come into contact with human tissues in various ways.

Exposure via the skin

Pesticides can be absorbed through the skin, for example, if a person handles products without protection or if they touch surfaces contaminated by pesticides.

In sufficient amounts, pesticides can cause health problems. They affect the skin and eyes in particular.

Some parts of the body absorb pesticides more easily, such as:

  • The scalp
  • The forehead
  • The eyes
  • Mucous membranes, such as in the mouth and nose

Exposure via the respiratory system

Pesticides applied as an aerosol or gas can easily enter the body through the respiratory system. This route of exposure to pesticides causes the most direct and most rapid poisoning.

Make sure that any areas you are treating with pesticides are well ventilated. If necessary, leave the area temporarily. Follow the directions on the product label.

Exposure via the mouth

Pesticides can be absorbed by mouth. This often happens when a person eats a food contaminated by pesticides or if they put their hands to their mouth after handling pesticides.

A number of common habits lead to this type of contact with pesticides, even accidentally. Therefore, you should avoid:

  • Smoking, drinking or eating when you handle or use pesticides
  • Storing pesticides in an inappropriate or incorrectly identified container, such as a fruit juice bottle
  • Storing pesticides in a place that children can access easily, for example, under the kitchen sink

Exposure via indirect sources


Food is often the main source of exposure to pesticides. In particular, fresh fruits and vegetables sometimes contain traces of pesticides. These amounts are, however, very low and are generally compliant with the standards established by Health Canada for acceptable concentrations of pesticides in food, called “maximum residue limits”.

According to the 2013-2014 Report of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency This hyperlink will open in a new window. (CFIA), foods of plant and animal origin were tested for pesticide residues; the compliance rate with maximum residue limits established by Health Canada was 98.27%.

Furthermore, the CFIA’s 2013-2014 Children’s Food Project This hyperlink will open in a new window., which included baby foods, showed that the compliance rate of these foods with maximum residue limits for all concentrations of pesticide residues was 100%.

Following the 2007-2011 monitoring program conducted by the Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation du Québec (MAPAQ), similar conclusions were drawn regarding fresh fruits and vegetables in Québec. To find out more, consult the publication Résidus des pesticides dans les fruits et légumes frais vendus au Québec 2007-2011 This hyperlink will open in a new window. (in French only).

Eating fruits and vegetables is essential to health. The benefits of these foods greatly outweigh the potential risks associated with the low amounts of pesticide residues they might contain. Concerns about pesticide use should not mean that you eat fewer fruits or vegetables. 

You can, however, develop the habit of washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them to reduce the amount of pesticides that might be on the surface. Make sure that you eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables too, since the amount of the different pesticides that may be in these foods varies widely. These simple precautions will reduce your exposure to some pesticides while increasing the variety of fruits and vegetables that you eat.

Drinking water

Drinking water may also be a potential source of exposure to pesticides. However, the water distributed by municipal systems usually complies with the pesticide standards in the Ministère de l’Environnement et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques (MELCC)’s Regulation respecting the quality of drinking water This hyperlink will open in a new window.. Furthermore, according to the Pesticides Management Code This hyperlink will open in a new window., pesticides must be applied a certain distance from bodies of water, watercourses and water intakes. This measure is crucial, especially in agriculture, for it helps protect surface wells, artesian wells and groundwater.

To find out more, go to the MELCC’s page La présence de pesticides dans l’eau en milieu agricole au Québec This hyperlink will open in a new window. (in French only).