EPA Bans 72 Toxic Ingredients in Pesticides, but Hundreds of Others Remain - and Aren't Even Listed on Labels

Personal Health

The Environmental Agency (EPA) has finalized a proposal to ban 72 inert (or secret hazardous) ingredients from use in pesticide formulations following a long fight with environmentalists who, in 2006, asked that pesticide product labels disclose any of 371 inert ingredients that could be in products. While this finalization is a step in the right direction, ultimately the move is viewed by advocates as inadequate.

The original petition, submitted by Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, along with Beyond Pesticides, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and nearly 20 other organizations, called on the agency to require disclosure of inerts. To put the announcement in perspective, EPA is acting on 72 inert ingredients that are no longer being used, such as turpentine oil, and nitrous oxide.

An inert ingredient is defined as any ingredient that is “not active,” or specifically targeted to kill a pest. According to 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 and fewer than 10 percent of pesticide products list any inert ingredients on their labels.

The report also found that more than 200 chemicals used as inert ingredients are hazardous pollutants in federal environmental statutes governing air and water quality, and, from a 1995 list of inert ingredients, 394 chemicals were listed as active ingredients in other pesticide products. For example, naphthalene is an inert ingredient in some products and listed as an active ingredient in others.

Some inert ingredients are even more toxic than the active ingredients. One of the most hazardous ingredients in the commonly used herbicide Roundup, POEA, is a surfactant that is classified as an inert and therefore not listed on the label. Researchers have found that POEA can kill human cells, particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.

Despite these uncertainties and potential hazards, pesticide manufacturers are only required to list the active ingredients in a pesticide under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). This leaves consumers and applicators unaware of the possible toxicity present in a vast majority of the pesticide formulations they are using unless the EPA Administrator determines that the chemical poses a public health threat.


In September 2009, EPA first responded to two petitions, one led by the Northwest Centers for Alternatives to Pesticides in 2006 (mentioned above), and a second by 15 State Attorneys General that identified over 350 inert pesticide ingredients as hazardous. The petitioners asked EPA to require these inert ingredients be identified on the labels of products that include them in their formulations.

Then, on December 23, 2009, EPA took another promising step forward with an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR), announcing its intention to seek public input on developing an inert ingredient disclosure rule. Putting forth two proposals, one to require listing all ingredients already identified as hazardous, and the other to require the listing of all ingredients on product labels. EPA then took no further action. As a result, some of the original petitioners filed an “undue delay” complaint against EPA in March 2014 for failing to complete rulemaking that would require pesticide manufacturers to disclose the inert ingredients on their pesticide product labels.

In response to that lawsuit, EPA retracted its previous ANPR and intention to move forward with rulemaking. Instead, EPA issued a letter to the original 2006 petitioners describing its intentions to seek non-rulemaking regulatory programs and voluntary disclosure standards, stating, “In sum, [EPA] believe[s] we have identified a more effective and timely way to achieve our common objective; but, because this approach would no longer pursue the rulemaking the EPA initiated via the [ANPR] seeking to mandate the disclosure of potentially hazardous inert ingredients on pesticide labels, as requested in the 2006 petitions, this amended response constitutes a denial of the petitions.”

EPA then used its change of position on issuing rulemaking and denial of the 2006 petition as a basis to have the undue delay lawsuit thrown out. This decision was challenged by environmental groups, but a federal judge in California handed down a decision in June 2016 agreeing with the EPA that it has no responsibility under federal pesticide law to complete rulemaking on the disclosure of hazardous ingredients in pesticide products.

Beyond Pesticides has long advocated a regulatory approach  that prohibits hazardous chemical use and requires alternative assessments to identify less toxic practices and products under the unreasonable adverse effects clause of FIFRA.  Beyond Pesticides was a co-plaintiff in the successful lawsuit Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides et al. v. EPA (Civil Action No. 94-1100, 1996), in which the court ruled that “inert” ingredients should not be given blanket trade secret protection by EPA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In that case, the plaintiffs successfully argued that EPA must disclose inert ingredients since their secrecy from public disclosure served no proprietary interest for the chemical manufacturer. This same argument holds with respect to the product label.

The failure of EPA to require the disclosure of inert ingredients poses many problems for those trying to protect human health. Failure to disclose the ingredients not only prevents consumers and decision makers from making informed decisions and comparing hazards. Local and state governments also run into roadblocks in their efforts to protect citizens, as they cannot readily evaluate what is in the pesticides products (formulations) that they are spraying in their communities to make independent judgments on safety, putting their citizens at risk. Under the prevailing laws, it is EPA’s duty to assess these risks and disclose the necessary information, through pesticide labels, as to what harmful ingredients pesticides contain.

Environmental groups, including Beyond Pesticides, have consistently urged EPA to follow in the steps of countries like Canada and the European Union by following the precautionary principle, which generally approves products after they have been assessed for harm, not before. Beyond Pesticides suggests an approach that rejects uses and exposures deemed acceptable under risk assessment calculations, and instead focuses on safer alternatives that are proven effective, such as organic agriculture, which prohibits the use of toxic chemicals.

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