Take care when washing work clothes used around pesticides

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

Pesticide applicators and handlers need to wear, at a minimum, the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) specified on pesticide product labels. Most pesticide labels require a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Proper laundering of work clothes that may be contaminated with pesticide residues is essential to reduce pesticide handlers’ short- and long-term exposure to pesticides and prevent the potential of residue cross-contamination onto other clothing. 

Many pesticide labels provide limited instructions for cleaning work clothes. In situations where no instructions are provided, the following are guidelines for caring for and laundering pesticide contaminated clothing.

In situations where no instructions are provided, the following are guidelines for caring for and laundering pesticide contaminated clothing.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the last line of defense to protect the body from pesticide exposure. Often, conventional work clothing is the primary form of PPE. Work clothes also are worn under more extensive garments such as aprons, chaps or chemical-resistant suits.

Ultimately, work clothes will become contaminated with pesticides as part of the handling, loading, mixing and application process. Therefore, you need to handle and wash work clothing carefully.

Consult the pesticide label for washing prohibitions or special laundering instructions.

Some common-sense approaches for cleaning pesticide-soiled clothing include:

  • Reviewing the pesticide label to determine if the clothing can be washed and if so, how (This is a legal requirement.) 
  • If garments are heavily contaminated, laundering them may not be an option.
  • Discard clothing and other absorbent materials that have been drenched or heavily contaminated with this product’s concentrate.”
  • If the label allows you to launder clothes that are not heavily contaminated, look for and follow label statements that direct you to use special procedures.
  • “… use detergents and hot water. Keep and wash PPE separately from other laundry.”
  • Handling, segregating, storing and washing clothes in a manner that will minimize contamination in the home and/or exposure to skin
  • Using optimum wash settings to remove pesticide contaminants from garments
  • Decontaminating the washing machine before using it for other household clothing
  • Notifying commercial laundering firms that they will be handling pesticide-contaminated garments if you send your contaminated clothing to them
  • Checking with the manager or owner of a laundromat or public washing facility about prohibitions or special handling policies if you plan to wash your contaminated clothing at those facilities.

Minimize Pesticide Residues in the Home and Avoid Human Exposure

Pesticide labels require pesticide applicators, handlers and workers to protect themselves and others from exposure to pesticides. Thus, pesticide-contaminated clothing should be handled as follows:

  • While outdoors, shake, sweep or dust off the clothing with compressed air and remove any dry material from the clothing. Pay special attention to cuffs and pockets where residues often collect.
  • Remove clothing outside the home or establish a changing place in the home that can be decontaminated easily after each use.
  • Launder clothes as soon as possible. Studies indicate that holding clothes for 24 hours or more significantly reduces the washing efficiency.
  • If you don’t wash clothes immediately: 1) Store them outside the home in a garage, shop or porch if possible. Otherwise, store them in a designated area in the home that can be decontaminated easily after each use. 2) Store separately from other household clothing in a plastic garbage bag or sealed, dedicated container. 
  • Contaminated clothes should be washed separately from other household laundry.
  • The person responsible for washing clothes should avoid skin exposure from the contaminated clothing by wearing a long-sleeved shirt and waterproof gloves when loading the washing machine. 
Wear a long-sleeved shirt and waterproof gloves to minimize skin exposure when loading the washer with pesticide-contaminated clothing.

Use Optimum Wash Settings and Decontaminate Washer After Use

If available, read the manufacturer’s directions for operating your particular machine. The directions often provide tips and detailed descriptions on how to achieve the best results.

  • Load only a few items into the washing machine. The washer provides the best agitation and dilution when it is loaded to no more than 50 to 75 percent of its clothing capacity.
  • Use the maximum amount of detergent the machine’s manufacturer recommends.
  • Detergents and supplemental wash tips: 1) Use high-quality detergents and avoid products termed “gentle detergents” that are designed for fragile fabrics or baby clothing. 2) Liquid or dry detergents provide similar wash efficiency when used with sufficient water volume, duration, agitation and temperature. 3) Bleach or ammonia has not been demonstrated to help remove pesticides consistently. 4) Pre-treating garments with stain-removal products does not improve wash efficiency significantly. 5) Fabric softeners do not help remove pesticide residues. 6) Pouches or pods containing detergents have not been evaluated for their ability to remove pesticides from fabrics.
  • Use the highest water setting available, regardless of load size, to maximize dilution.
  • Use hot water. High temperatures disperse detergents and pesticides more efficiently than warm water, and especially more than cold water.
  • Use a pre-rinse/soak before initiating the wash cycle. Research shows this aids in removing pesticide residues.
  • Use an aggressive wash cycle that lasts at least 20 minutes. You may need to reset the wash cycle manually to achieve this with older and/or basic machines.
  • Use a high-speed spin. If this feature is not available, reset the machine manually to increase the spin time to further remove moisture and contaminants from the clothing.
  • Run one additional empty cycle without clothing, using detergent and hot water, before using the washer for household laundry.
  • If practical, dry clothes outside on a clothesline. Otherwise, dry clothes in a dryer or hang inside.

Additional Points to Consider

Research on laundering pesticide-contaminated work clothing primarily was conducted in the 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, significant changes have occurred in pesticide toxicity and formulation, detergents, washing machines and clothing design/finishing.

Pesticide toxicity: Generally, pesticides used today are of lower toxicity and less persistent in the environment, and the amount of active ingredient necessary to control pests is significantly lower. Pesticide manufacturers and equipment suppliers also have made important advancements in formulation/packaging and engineering controls to further reduce applicator exposure.

Still, pesticides are considered toxic agents, and many pose a health risk to applicators and other individuals who may come in contact with them, especially if label instructions and best management practices are not followed. The development of a good laundering routine continues to play an important role in protecting the applicator and other members of the household.

Laundry detergents: Laundry detergents are different than the ones used in the above studies. The detergents no longer contain phosphates due to environmental concerns. Significant improvements in detergent performance have occurred in recent years, particularly in their ability to tolerate hard water, disperse contaminates and break down quickly after use. In addition, consumers are moving increasingly to liquid-based detergents because they are easier to use.

Pods have not been evaluated for efficacy in removing pesticides from contaminated clothing. Regardless of what detergent is employed, if it is used in conjunction with other proper laundering procedures, work clothes that are lightly or moderately contaminated can be cleaned to acceptable levels for future use.