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Herbicide Myths Vs. the Facts


MYTH: The Government tests pesticides for safety before they are sold.
FACT: The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) does not test pesticides for safety. It relies on the manufacturers’ test data to make judgments. Recent probes have found that the experiments on which these data have been based, have been designed to show only what the manufacturer would like them to show. This criticism of self-serving misrepresentation can be aimed equally validly at irresponsible experimenters bent on demonstrating toxicity of a given pesticide.

It seems that however this problem is approached, the EPA needs to take more affirmative action and responsibility. This is not likely to happen, as the EPA’s research program increasingly relies on corporate joint venture, according to agency documents obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Indeed, a study by the Government Accountability Office (the investigative arm of Congress – the same people who first told us of the $640 toilet seats and $1,000 hammers purchased with Department of Defense money), in April 2005, concluded that the EPA lacks safeguards to “evaluate or manage potential conflicts of interest” in corporate research agreements, as they are taking money from corporations that they are supposed to be regulating.

MYTH: What you need to know is on the packaging label.
FACT: Not by a long shot. Read the list of ingredients of any pesticide and you will find them divided into “Active Ingredients” and “Inert Ingredients.” The active ingredients listed are those chemicals that will affect the target pest – these must be listed. They usually consist of a long chemical name and the percent it represents of total volume. The so-called inert ingredients are everything else that is not the active ingredient. They may be solvents, carriers, preservatives, and/or adjuvants intended to make the active ingredient work better. They do not need to be listed on the label, though they may represent 99.9 % of the volume. The so-called inert ingredients in a pesticide may be hundreds of times more toxic than the so-called active ingredient.

Most consumers assume that the inert ingredients are somehow “inactive” and therefore not harmful to health or environment. Nothing could be further from the truth. The chemicals used as inerts include some of the most dangerous substances known. A chemical may be identified as an active ingredient in one pesticide, while being included under inert ingredients in another product, and not identified. The designation reflects the purpose the chemical serves in a given formulation, and is at the discretion of the manufacturer. Consequently, some chemicals that are “controlled substances” in one formulation, may be used as “inert ingredients” and not listed in another.

MYTH: There are laws…
FACT: The primary focus of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, originally enacted in 1947, was to provide federal control of pesticide distribution, sale, and use. The act has been amended many times over the years. One of these amendments permitted manufacturers protection of trade secrets. It is under these provisions that manufacturers circumvent a law that originally intended all information to be known – at least by the EPA. The fact that today, with mass spectrometers, chemistry can determine the makeup of the inert ingredients, leaves only the end consumer in the dark.

In 1990 the Office of the Attorney General of New York filed a request that all inert ingredients in pesticides be made public. The request was repeated a number of times through the decade, to no avail. Sixteen years later, in August of 2006, the attorneys general of 14 states have filed a similar petition to the EPA. This time the EPA is obliged to respond within a given time period.

MYTH: There are safe pesticides.
FACT: Any chemical may be misused and misapplied. Precautionary measures to consider when using glyphosate (without adjuvants):
• Wear gloves.
• Don’t breathe in the fumes.
• Avoid ingesting the product.
• Don’t use the product if you are pregnant.
• Use a coarse broadcast spray when most native plant species are dormant and amphibians are not out and about.

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Updated: Nov 17, 2006.