The word pesticides is the translation of the English term pesticides. The most correct Italian term, however, is phytosanitary products, often also called pesticides, pesticides, agro-drugs. Pesticides, in practice, are microorganisms or chemicals (natural and industrially produced) used in agriculture to eliminate everything that damages cultivated plants (for example: animal or vegetable parasites, or insects that transmit various diseases to plants) and compromise the soil productivity and crop quality. Pesticides, therefore, serve to protect the health of the crop and ensure its survival.

Fertilizers are not pesticides: they are substances used in agriculture to enrich the soil with nutrients (for example, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) essential for the growth of plant products.

Pesticides or plant protection products are divided into different categories depending on the organism against which they are used, for example:

  • insecticides (they fight insects harmful to agricultural crops, but also insects that are simply annoying or carriers (vehicles) of diseases for humans or pets)
  • fungicides (counteract diseases and alterations produced by fungi)
  • herbicides or herbicides (used to destroy weeds, or weeds; may also include defoliants)
  • fungicides (counteract diseases and alterations produced by bacteria, molds and algae)
  • nematocides (fight soil worms or nematodes)
  • acaricides (fight mites)
  • plant growth regulators (plant hormones that regulate crop growth)

Each of these categories includes, in turn, substances or active ingredients belonging to different chemical classes, which act with different mechanisms. Pesticides cannot, therefore, be considered a homogeneous group of substances.

The plant protection products on the market are formulations that contain at least one active substance that allows the product to perform its action. Other substances (called co-formulants) are generally added to it, useful, for example, to be able to dissolve them more easily in water (emulsifiers), to preserve their stability and effectiveness or to improve their penetration into the target organism (adjuvants).

Effects on health

Pesticides have brought humanity many advantages such as, for example, the possibility of eliminating diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness, yellow fever from some territories and favoring greater agricultural production to cope with the increase in the world population. Alongside these advantages, however, pesticides represent a potential danger to human health and the environment.

The term pesticide and its different categories (insecticide, acaricide, fungicide etc.) are characterized by the suffix gives us which means “capable of killing” the organisms that are their target (insects, mites, fungi, etc.). To do this, they must be able to interfere with the structures or functions of harmful organisms (fungi, insects, molds etc.) which, however, are often also present in other species, including humans. This means that most substances used as pesticides can have toxic effects even on organisms that are not their direct target.

Given the great variety of chemical classes and microorganisms used, it is not possible to generalize about the possible health effects due to pesticides, because they are different depending on the type of product used (read the Bufala). In humans, exposure to toxic levels of some insecticides can cause effects on the central nervous system, the use of others can cause effects on the liver, and still others on fertility.

The ideal pesticides are the so-called ones selective (toxic only for the target organisms and not for other species) that is to say that, once their action is carried out, they do not remain in the environment for long, thus limiting the damage related to the pollution of water, air and soil and their consequent accumulation in the organisms, including humans.

How do you come into contact with pesticides

Contact with pesticides can be of a professional nature, as occurs for the workers involved in the production, transport and storage processes, or linked to their use as happens to farmers.

The rest of the population can be exposed due to the proximity to the areas where pesticides are used and for their domestic use (essentially insecticides). Therefore, it does not end only with residues (small quantities of pesticides) that may be present in the diet (food and water) and in the environment, but also includes products deposited on furniture, upholstery and furnishings which, indoors, they can persist longer than outside. For this you must always carefully follow the methods and precautions for use indicated on the label.

The residues present, for example, in fruits and vegetables, being very small quantities, do not give immediate intoxication risks after the consumption of a single food, but prolonged ingestion over time could have health effects.This possibility is prevented by the law in force on the safety of pesticides which obliges to study how much residue remains on the crops and to verify that there are no risks to the health of consumers before their sale is authorized.

Legislation for the protection of health

Plant protection products cannot be placed on the market or used before they have been authorized. In order to protect both human and animal health and the environment, Regulation (EC) No. 1107/2009 was adopted in Europe which establishes rules on the authorization, placing on the market, use and control of plant protection products within the European community (and replaces the previous legislation 79/117 / EEC and 91/414 / EEC). The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in collaboration with the member states of 'EU evaluates active substances; member states verify and authorize individual products to be put on the market at national level. The importance of safe use of plant protection products on our health is testified by the fact that in Italy the competent body is the Ministry of Health, unlike most other member states where the responsibility lies with the Ministry of Agriculture.

The approval of new active substances to be used as pesticides is preceded by a risk assessment process to determine whether they can produce harmful effects on human or animal health and if they do not compromise the quality of the environment. In this process, the presence of residues in treated foods is also assessed and proposals are made to establish maximum acceptable residue levels. All issues relating to the legal limits of pesticide residues in food are dealt with in Regulation (EC) 396/2005.

Active substances already on the market before European regulation

Before the introduction of the European directive 91/414, prior to regulation 1107/2009, the level of protection varied according to the country considered. The directive envisaged, for the first time, a review program of all the approximately 1,000 active substances present in plant protection products used in Europe at that time. Based on the effects on human health, also considering residues in the food chain and in the environment, with particular attention to waters and non-target organisms, such as birds, mammals, worms and bees, at the end of the process, in 2008, only 250 substances (around 26%) passed the criteria for authorization. Most of them (67%) were eliminated due to the absence, inadequacy or incompleteness of their dossiers (data and information collected on their toxicity) which, therefore, did not allow to evaluate their safety. The substances removed from the market because they were evaluated not safe in the first evaluation cycle there were about 70.

The authorization is limited in time so that, periodically, all active substances are re-evaluated, both because new data may be available, and because the authorization criteria are increasingly protective for human health and the environment. The database of active substances is available on the European Commission's website since 16 March 2009; on the website of the Ministry of Health there are databases of active substances and plant protection products authorized in Italy.

Residue controls in food

To protect people's health by covering all sectors of the food chain "from farm to table"And to verify the maximum residue levels of plant protection products present in food, official controls are carried out within national programs through sampling of various representative foods on the market (vegetables, fruit, cereals, oil, wine, milk, eggs, meat and fish), which also take into account the results of controls from previous years. In Italy, the Ministry of Health coordinates and defines plans for residues of plant protection products in food. The results of the check are published on the ministry website, notifying all the authorities involved. The ministry transmits these results to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

In April 2020, EFSA published its annual report on pesticide residues detected in food in the European Union for the year 2018: a total of 91,050 samples were analyzed, 95.5% of which fell within the levels permitted by law. The risk analysis carried out by EFSA by combining the data obtained with the information on food consumption provided by Member States indicates that acute and chronic exposure to pesticide residues through food is unlikely to raise health concerns for the consumers.

The license

The license, or more correctly the "certificate of qualification for the purchase and use of plant protection products", Is the essential document for anyone who intends to purchase or even only use, on a professional level, the plant protection products necessary to defend plants from various harmful organisms.The periodic issue and renewal of the license certify that the holder, the so-called "professional user", has participated in specific basic training and periodic updating and is aware of the risks associated with the "purchase, storage and the use of plant protection products.


Encyclopedia Treccani. Pesticides

European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Pesticides

Ministry of Health. Phytosanitary products

In-depth link

Regulation (EC) n. 1107/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council relating to the placing on the market of plant protection products

Regulation (EC) n. 396/2005 of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning maximum residue levels of pesticides in or on food and feed products of plant and animal origin

Emilia Romagna region. The correct use of phytosanitary products 2016 edition

Tuscany region. Phytosanitary products. Risks and correct use

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