The Truth About Inerts
Federal pesticide law currently maintains a "use until proven deadly" policy. The EPA estimates that "75 percent of US households used at least one pesticide ingredient indoors" in 1995. But neither the government nor pesticide manufacturers has tested the majority of nearly 20,000 pesticide products on the US market adequately enough to certify them safe. Equally disturbing -- though less-known -- is the fact that the EPA does not monitor the health or environmental effects of thousands of toxic pesticide additives called "inerts."Pesticide products registered by the EPA are composed of "active" and "inert" ingredients. While pesticide labels must identify all active ingredients by name, inerts routinely are listed only as a percentage of the contents.According to pesticide law, active ingredients "kill, repel or mitigate" pests, while inert ingredients simply help the product work better. A strategically inserted inert can enhance a pesticide's toxicity by facilitating absorption of chemical ingredients through the leaves of a plant, the shell of a beetle -- or the skin of a human.AN INERT CAN HURTResponsible Industry for a Sound Environment [RISE, 1156 15th St. NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20005, (202) 872-3860, fax: 463-0474] is an industry-sponsored organization that claims to offer "current and accurate... information on issues affecting the pesticides industry." But when the Journal called RISE to ask about the contents of several popular household pesticides, an employee brusquely explained that RISE does not have access to specific listings of product ingredients (inert or active).When questioned about inert ingredients in "lawn improvement" herbicides, a RISE spokesperson assured the Journal that "inert ingredients aren't listed, because they're mostly nontoxic... There is pretty much no risk associated with those products if you follow all the information on the label."The truth is: Most "inerts" are not inert. They are biologically, chemically and toxicologically active. Many inerts are more toxic than the active ingredients.Even chemicals regulated as hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (based on categories including toxicity, persistence, potential for accumulation in tissue, concentration, flammability and corrosiveness) may be used as inert ingredients in pesticide products.Most pesticides contain significantly more inert than active ingredients. Experts speculate that the synergistic (combined) effect derived from mixing inerts and active ingredients together is frequently what makes pesticide products so lethal. Recent studies on the popular Monsanto Corp. herbicide, Roundup, for example, indicate that addition of the inert ingredient polyoxethylene to the active ingredient, glyphosate, substantially increases Roundup's toxicity.The EPA does not test inerts; it simply ranks them according to current toxicological information. But the EPA claims that it has adequate toxicological information to assess just 25 percent of the 2,300 inerts now in use. Under US law, pesticide labels need identify only the small list of inerts that the EPA believes pose a "toxicological concern." The labels omit the names of inert ingredients that are merely "potentially toxic."Xylenes, a category of petroleum-derived inerts used as solvents in as many as 2,000 pesticides, may cause memory and hearing loss, liver and kidney damage, eye-irritation, inflamed lungs, low fetal weight and even fetal death. Workers in frequent contact with xylenes suffer a greater frequency of leukemia than the population at large.LAWSUITS AND "TRADE SECRETS"For more than a year, the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides [NCAP, PO Box 1393, Eugene, OR 97440, (541) 344-5044], the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides [NCAMP, 707 E St. SE, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20003, (202) 543-5450], the EPA and the American Crop Protection Association (ACPA) -- established by major pesticide manufacturers like DuPont and Monsanto -- have locked horns in a three-way suit challenging the secrecy of inert pesticide ingredients.In May 1995, NCAP and NCAMP - represented by the Western Environmental Law Center [WELC, 1216 Lincoln St., Eugene, OR 97401, (541) 485-2471, fax: -2457] -- sued the EPA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The suit, brought before the US District Court in Washington, DC, cites the EPA for failure to release the names of inert ingredients for six herbicides sprayed on California's national forests."The label on a pesticide should be as informative as the label on a package of cookies or a bottle of shampoo," NCAP contends, but the EPA claims that inerts are protected as "trade secrets."Possibly sensing that inerts fail to meet all criteria for trade secret exemption under FOIA, the ACPA leaped into the legal fray, arguing that inerts are not really "trade secrets," but simply "secrets." ACPA maintained that the 1972 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) specifically prohibits disclosure of "secret" pesticide formulas.The secrecy surrounding so-called "inerts" highlights the duplicity of a pesticide policy that claims to protect public health, while actually safeguarding private economic interests.NCAP's Caroline Cox asserts that under FIFRA, EPA is forbidden to "cause commercial harm" to pesticide manufacturers. The real purpose of FIFRA, Cox charges, is to allow the easy sale of pesticides, rather than to protect the environment or the public.NCAP wants to see every ingredient listed on every product, especially while so many chemicals remain untested. Says Cox, "The consumer doesn't have the information necessary to make a reasoned decision" about whether to pick up a can of RAID or a fly swatter.Marion Moses, MD, director of the Pesticide Education Center [PO Box 420870, San Francisco, CA 94142-0870, (415) 391-8511, fax: -9159] and author of the recently published book, Designer Poisons, sums up the pesticide industry's attempts to justify use, abuse and incomplete product labeling of poisons by stating, "This is not science; it is marketing."****UPDATE****Last October, the US District Court hearing the "inerts" case ruled that the EPA is required to disclose the names of inert ingredients in pesticides, ending the long-standing practice of hiding the identity of inerts behind a veil of "trade secrets." As we reported above, inerts frequently comprise the bulk of a pesticide's makeup and often are more dangerous than the active ingredients. The ruling ended a two-year lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act by the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides and the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides.