Signal words are found on pesticide product labels, and they describe the acute (short-term) toxicity of the formulated pesticide product. The signal word can be either: DANGER, WARNING or CAUTION. Products with the DANGER signal word are the most toxic. Products with the signal word CAUTION are lower in toxicity.1 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires a signal word on most pesticide product labels. They also require it to be printed on the front panel, in all capital letters, to make it easy for users to find. The only pesticide products that are not required to display a signal word are those that fall into the lowest toxicity category by all routes of exposure (oral, dermal, inhalation, and other effects like eye and skin irritation).2,3 See the table below titled "Toxicity Category."
CAUTION means the pesticide product is slightly toxic if eaten, absorbed through the skin, inhaled, or it causes slight eye or skin irritation.2,4
WARNING indicates the pesticide product is moderately toxic if eaten, absorbed through the skin, inhaled, or it causes moderate eye or skin irritation.2,4
DANGER means that the pesticide product is highly toxic by at least one route of exposure. It may be corrosive, causing irreversible damage to the skin or eyes. Alternatively, it may be highly toxic if eaten, absorbed through the skin, or inhaled. If this is the case, then the word "POISON" must also be included in red letters on the front panel of the product label.2,4
|TOXICITY CATEGORY (Signal Word)2
|Very Low Toxicity
(Optional Signal Word = CAUTION)
|Acute Oral LD50
|Up to and including 50 mg/kg
(≤ 50 mg/kg)
|Greater than 50 through 500 mg/kg
|Greater than 500 through 5000 mg/kg
|Greater than 5000 mg/kg
|Up to and including 0.05 mg/L
|Greater than 0.05 through 0.5 mg/L
|Greater than 0.5 through 2.0 mg/L
|Greater than 2.0 mg/L
|Up to and including 200 mg/kg
|Greater than 200 through 2000 mg/kg
|Greater than 2000 through 5000 mg/kg
|Greater than 5000 mg/kg
|Primary Eye Irritation
|Corrosive (irreversible destruction of ocular tissue) or corneal involvement or irritation persisting for more than 21 days
|Corneal involvement or other eye irritation clearing in 8 - 21 days
|Corneal involvement or other eye irritation clearing in 7 days or less
|Minimal effects clearing in less than 24 hours
|Primary Skin Irritation
|Corrosive (tissue destruction into the dermis and/or scarring)
|Severe irritation at 72 hours (severe erythema or edema)
|Moderate irritation at 72 hours (moderate erythema)
|Mild or slight irritation at 72 hours (no irritation or erythema)
Before the EPA can determine the appropriate signal word for a pesticide product, the manufacturer performs research on laboratory animals to determine the toxicity of the formulation. Required studies include oral exposure (eating the product), inhalation exposure (breathing in the product), dermal exposure (spreading the product on the skin) and exposures to the skin and eyes to check for irritation. The study that shows the highest toxicity is used to determine the signal word.3 For example, if a product demonstrated low toxicity when eaten, moderate toxicity when inhaled, and high toxicity when applied to skin, the EPA would assign the signal word DANGER, based on the most sensitive route of entry. In this example it was the skin.1
See the text box on LD50/LC50 for more details about the required toxicity tests.
LD50/LC50: A common measure of acute toxicity is the lethal dose (LD50) or lethal concentration (LC50) that causes death (resulting from a single or limited exposure) in 50 percent of the treated animals. LD50 is generally expressed as the dose in milligrams (mg) of chemical per kilogram (kg) of body weight. LC50 is often expressed as mg of chemical per volume (e.g., liter (L)) of medium (i.e., air or water) the organism is exposed to. Chemicals are considered highly toxic when the LD50/LC50 is small and practically non-toxic when the value is large. However, the LD50/LC50 does not reflect any effects from long-term exposure (i.e., cancer, birth defects or reproductive toxicity) that may occur at levels below those that cause death.
Signal words help alert users to special hazards of a pesticide product. The signal word can be used by shoppers to select the least toxic product(s) of those that are sufficiently effective.4
Regardless of the signal word on the pesticide product, it is important to remember that every product still has the potential to poison (i.e., is harmful at high doses). Special care should be taken to carefully follow all of the directions on the label, each time a pesticide product is used.
NPIC fact sheets are designed to answer questions that are commonly asked by the general public about pesticides that are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). This document is intended to be educational in nature and helpful to consumers for making decisions about pesticide use.