Issue 5, June 15, 2020

Is it Spray Drift and What Do I Do?

On average, each year the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) receives approximately 120 pesticide misuse complaints, of which 60% are pesticide drift complaints.  Many of you know that the number of complaints has been much higher in recent years due to the allowed use of dicamba on soybeans and the apparent extreme sensitivity of surrounding plants to small amounts of dicamba.  Detailed label restrictions were quickly put into place to reduce the incidence of drift with those products.  Regardless, drift complaints have been around for as long as pesticides have and certainly, dicamba is not the only one to blame.  It’s June and we are in the midst of the growing season for gardens, landscapes, and field crops.  At this point, thousands of acres have been sprayed with herbicides and the emails concerning possible herbicide injury to non-target plants have started to come in.

With the physical off-target movement of pesticides, prevention is key.  Applicators should take steps to prevent physical drift and most do.  No applicator wants their pesticide to move away from the intended location.  Neighborly discussions before pesticides are applied are important so applicators understand if sensitive plants are growing near the application site.  In the unfortunate case that drift has occurred, it’s a good idea to know the basics of the complaint process and what resources are available to you.

Before doing anything, both parties should make an effort to discuss the suspected drift incident and rule out other possible causes of the damage.  In cases where the cause of the damage remains unclear or where the parties will not work together, a formal complaint may be necessary.

The IDOA and University of Illinois Extension have important but different roles in assisting citizens of Illinois in dealing with pesticides. These roles are based on the IDOA’s responsibilities to administer and enforce the laws related to the use of pesticides and University of Illinois Extension’s responsibilities to educate and solve problems.

“The University of Illinois Plant Clinic does not perform pesticide residue testing. Plant Clinic staff will examine plants to identify pests and pathogens present on the sample which could be causing the symptoms. This allows clients to rule out other possible causes for the injury. Staff and specialists can also note if the symptoms on the sample are consistent with the applied chemicals listed on the sample submission form. Due to COVID-19, the Plant Clinic operations have changed a bit and staff may be limited. Please contact the Plant Clinic at with questions about sample submission and shipping.”

The IDOA has three roles that impact its handling of pesticide-drift complaints. These roles are (1) education and licensing of applicators and operators via the Pesticide Safety Education Program, (2) investigation of complaints, and (3) enforcement of pesticide laws. The roles of IDOA are determined by laws and statutes passed by the Illinois legislature or the federal government.

If you choose to file a complaint with IDOA, time is of the essence. The pesticide drift complaint process is started by filling out a pesticide misuse/incident complaint form which can be found at or by calling IDOA's Bureau of Environmental Programs at 1-800-641-3934 (voice and TDD) or 217-785-2427.  Due to limited staffing from COVID-19, you may need to leave a detailed phone message.  Additional information on pesticide uses and misuses can be found on the agency’s website at

Complaint forms must be received by IDOA within 30 days of the incident or within 30 days of when the damage was first noticed. Complaints filed after that will be kept on record, but no administrative action can be taken.

The complaint process

Once a complaint is filed with the department, a field inspector is assigned the case. In most cases, the inspector will interview the complainant and inspect the site. Various types of samples, such as plants, water, or soil, may be collected for analysis at IDOA’s in-house laboratory.

Due to COVID concerns this season, field inspector contact with complainants and applicators will mostly be limited to phone conversations unless proper social distancing guidelines can be maintained.

The inspector may also interview applicators in the area, examine pesticide records and collect weather data in an attempt to determine the nature and cause of the damage. The field investigator will then submit a report to the Department for review.

Both parties will receive written notification if the Department finds a violation and takes an enforcement action. Penalties range from advisory or warning letters to monetary penalties of $750 to $10,000, depending on the type and severity of the violation. Penalties are determined through a point system defined in the Illinois Pesticide Act.

Even if a violation of the Illinois Pesticide Act cannot be substantiated, both the complainant and the alleged violator will be notified in writing of the complaint's status. Remember, the Department's role in pesticide misuse incidents is limited to determining whether a violation has occurred. IDA cannot help complainants recover damages.

Certainly, it is easiest and best to prevent physical herbicide drift from occurring.  Drift can be extremely expensive and often results in poor neighbor relations.  

Additional information for use when handling potential drift injury

A useful resource that includes information and helpful tips on preventing and dealing with the off-target movement of herbicide applications is an online module titled,
“Herbicide Tolerant Crop Stewardship”.  Especially useful would be chapter 5, “Avoiding/Handling Injury.”  While it was created with producers in mind, it would also be beneficial to homeowners, gardeners, and really anyone who grows plants. This free resource can be found at:

Another useful resource is the booklet, Field Guide to Herbicide Injury on Landscape Plants available for sale at  This guide can assist with the challenging task of diagnosing herbicide injury.  It features photographs of specific injury symptoms that resulted from a field trial of various ornamental and vegetable species. 

Updated from a 2016 article by the same authors.

Michelle Wiesbrook
Aaron Hager

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