What's In a Pesticide?
A Beyond Pesticides Factsheet
normally think of a pesticide as the product that can be purchased
in the store - the insecticide, the weed killer or the fungicide.
But, unfortunately, there is much more to it than that. The product
that you buy or are exposed to is actually a pesticide formulation
that contains a number of different materials, including active
and inert ingredients, as well as contaminants
and impurities. In addition, pesticides, when subject
to various environmental conditions, break down to other materials
known as metabolites, which are sometimes more toxic than
the parent material.
active ingredient, usually the only component of the formulation
listed on the pesticide label, is by nature biologically and chemically
active against a target pest, be it an insect, weed or fungus.
By definition these chemicals kill living things.
and impurities are often a part of the pesticide product and responsible
for product hazards. Dioxin and DDT have been identified as contaminants,
which have not been purposefully added but are a function of the
are breakdown products that form when a pesticide is used in the
environment and mixes with air, water, soil or living organisms.
Often the metabolite is more hazardous than the parent pesticide.
you were to go to your local hardware store and take a look at
the label on a can of ant and roach killer, the contents might
read something like this, "5% Permethrin, 95% Inert Ingredients."
After reading the label, you may wonder what makes up the other
95%. The fact is, the manufacturer doesn't have to tell you. Currently,
under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act
(FIFRA), pesticide manufacturers are only required to list the
active ingredients in a pesticide, leaving consumers and applicators
unaware of the possible toxics present in the inert ingredients
of pesticide products they are using, unless the EPA administrator
determines that the chemical poses a public health threat. Pesticide
manufacturers argue they cannot release information on inert ingredients
because they are trade secrets, and if released, their products
could be duplicated. Quite often inert ingredients constitute
over 95% of the pesticide product. Inert ingredients are mixed
into pesticides products as a carrier or sticking agent, and are
often as toxic as the active ingredient.
Hazards of Inert Ingredients
their name, these ingredients are neither chemically, biologically
or toxicologically inert. In general, inert ingredients are minimally
tested, however, many are known to state, federal and international
agencies to be hazardous to human health. For example, the U.S.
government lists creosols as a "Hazardous Waste" under Superfund
regulations, yet allows these chemicals to be listed as inert
ingredients in pesticide products. Creosols are known to produce
skin and eye irritations, burns, inflammation, blindness, pneumonia,
pancreatitis, central nervous system depression and kidney failure.
Some inert ingredients are even more toxic than the active ingredients.
One of the most hazardous ingredients in the commonly used herbicide
is a surfactant, which is classified as an inert, and therefore
not listed on the label. The pesticide naphthalene is an inert
ingredient in some products and listed as an active ingredient
in others. According a 2000 report produced by the New York State
Attorney General, The Secret Ingredients in Pesticides: Reducing
the Risk, 72 percent of pesticide products available to consumers
contain over 95 percent inert ingredients; fewer than 10 percent
of pesticide products list any inert ingredients on their labels;
more than 200 chemicals used as inert ingredients are hazardous
pollutants in federal environmental statutes governing air and
water quality; and, of a 1995 list of inert ingredients, 394 chemicals
were listed as active ingredients in other pesticide products.
Can Be Done?
Pesticides/NCAMP is working to convince EPA to require that all
pesticide ingredients, including inerts, are listed on all pesticide
product labels. In the meantime, because of a successful 1996
lawsuit (NCAP and NCAMP v. Carol Browner, EPA) filed by
the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP)
and Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP against EPA, people may systematically
request the ingredients in specific pesticide product formulations
through the Freedom of Information Act. To obtain this
information, a request must be made in writing to the Public Information
Officer of EPA, EPA Office of Pesticide Programs, Freedom of Information
Office H7506C, 401 M Street, SW, Washington, DC 20460. If you
are member of a non-profit organization or seeking information
"in the public interest," ask that your fees be waived "pursuant
to 5 U.S.C. Section 522" and explain your tax status. Individual
states also have similar laws, often called "Open Records Acts"
which can be used. Visit the NCAP website for a sample
request letter or reports
on inert ingredients.
Status of Pesticides
standards of safety in the various statutes, whether the Food
Quality Protection Act (FQPA) or the Federal
Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), are
based on risk assessments or risk benefit equations that bring
with them a high degree of uncertainty as to the adverse impacts
that pesticide exposure will have on various population groups.
There is no disagreement that children, for example, exhibit higher
vulnerability than adults to pesticide exposure and that risk
assessments for most of the pesticides in use do not take this
fact into account. The "unreasonable adverse effects" standard
of safety in FIFRA allows EPA to accept risk levels among the
population. The "reasonable certainty of no harm" standard in
FQPA is defined as "negligible risk," which provides for a risk
assessment calculation that may adopt inaccurate assumptions about
exposure patterns, background levels, previous exposures, and
more. None of these calculations look at synergistic effects.
There is very little attention to contaminants and impurities
that are contained in pesticide products.
pesticide use patterns and a deficient regulatory process add
up to inadequate regulation of pesticides and is not protection
of public health.
The vast majority of all pesticide products registered
for use by EPA and state governments have never been fully tested
for the full range of potential human health effects, such as
cancer, birth defects, genetic damage, reproductive effects and
neurological disorders, and endocrine disruption. Indeed, pesticides
can be registered even when they have been shown to cause adverse
health effects. Due to the numerous pesticide formulations on
the market, the lack of disclosure requirements, insufficient
data requirements, and inadequate testing, it is impossible to
accurately estimate the hazards of pesticide products, much less
lifetime exposure or risk. There is no way to predict the effects
in children solely based on toxicity testing in adult or even
adolescent laboratory animals, which is EPA's procedure for evaluating