25. The Truth About “Inert” Chemicals

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Sources: RACHEL’S ENVIRONMENT AND HEALTH WEEKLY, Date: November 23, 1995, Title: “Many Pesticides, Little Knowledge,” Author: Peter Montague; EARTH ISLAND JOURNAL, Date: Fall 1996, Title: “The Truth About Inerts,” Author: Charmaine Oakley

SSU Censored Researcher: Jeffrey Fillmore

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “inert” as “Not readily reactive with other elements.” This does not necessarily describe chemicals such as sulfuric acid or kerosene. However, a 1972 law allows household pesticide manufacturers to include these chemicals as “inert” ingredients in their products without revealing their presence to consumers.

There are over 20,000 different household pesticide products. These pesticides contain over 300 active ingredients and up to 2,300 inert ingredients. However, in accordance with the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) which prohibits disclosure of “secret” pesticide formulas, inert ingredients are not listed on product labels—ostensibly, to protect manufacturing secrets. While up to 99 percent of a household pesticide may be considered “inert” only the active ingredients are listed on the product label and regulated by law. In actual practice, pesticide manufacturers decide what to call inert and what to designate as an active ingredient subject to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation. This has produced a situation where ingredients in some pesticide products are considered active and regulated by the EPA, but in other pesticide products are unregulated, inert ingredients missing from the label.

The truth is: Most “inerts” are not inert. They are biologically, chemically, and toxicologically active. Many inerts are in fact more toxic than the active ingredients. A 1991 EPA report lists over 1,400 of the inert ingredients used in housed pesticides as either potentially toxic, toxic, or of unknown toxicity. These “inert” ingredients of unknown toxicity include chemicals and compounds such as epoxy resin, malathion, kerosene, and sulfuric acid. One category of solvents known as xylenes, an “inert” ingredient in as many as 2,000 pesticides, is linked to increased frequency of leukemia in workers and may cause memory and hearing loss, liver and kidney damage, eye irritation, inflamed lungs, low birth weight, and even fetal death.

Evaluating the toxicity of inert ingredients has low priority at the EPA, receiving less than 1 percent of the pesticide program’s budget, and has no specific procedure or time frames for review.

While the reason given for withholding information on inerts of pesticides is supposedly to protect manufacturing secrets, Louise Mehler, Program Director of the California EPA’s Worker Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program, states, “The chemists here say that since the invention of the mass spectrometer, anybody who wants [to find out the ingredients] can really find out.”

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.

COMMENTS: Peter Montague, author of “Many Pesticides, Little Knowledge,” and editor of Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly, wrote his article about the lack of knowledge surrounding “inert” ingredients in pesticides. “So far as I know,” he says, “this story received no coverage in the mass media. Even when a federal court in the District of Columbia ruled in October 1996, that the EPA had improperly denied information to the public about `inert’ pesticide ingredients, the story was ignored. “If the truth about ‘inerts’ were told in the mass media, people might organize to force full disclosure of inerts. The resulting knowledge might fuel greater concern for the danger of pesticides.”

According to Montague, the pesticide industry benefits from the lack of media attention given to the existence of “inert” chemicals. The food industry benefits secondarily, he says. “It is principally the pesticide industry that benefits because the food industry would adjust if the use of pesticidal chemicals diminished substantially. The pesticide industry is a $29 billion per year enterprise, dominated by six chemical giants,” he notes.

“If the general public knew that the safety of multiple pesticides in food couldn’t be established scientifically by governments, many members of the public might think twice about accepting pesticide-laden food as the norm. They might even make an extra effort to seek out minimally contaminated food, such as ‘organically grown’ produce and meat.”

As for recent developments concerning disclosure of “inert” substances, Montague points to the implications of the federal court’s decision. “After the federal court ruling on October 11, 1996, the American Crop Protection Association (a trade group for the pesticide industry) asked the judge to review the decision, which the judge did. The decision was sustained. However, this was not a sweeping decision, as some environmentalists have claimed. The decision said that the EPA cannot make a blanket policy against the disclosure of inerts, but must treat each pesticide on a case-by-case basis. Former EPA official James Chem told Pesticide and Toxic Chemical News (November 6, 1996), ‘The … case has placed a crack in the wall of confidentiality surrounding confidential statements of formula.’ Nevertheless, the wall of confidentiality remains,” says Montague.

According to Charmaine Oakley, author of “The Truth About Inerts,” “The mainstream media is skittish about pesticide issues in general and out-and-out criticisms of the pesticide industry in particular. The idea that pesticide labels do not adequately inform consumers of a product’s ingredients or associated risks cuts against the whole mainstream mentality that nothing really harmful is on the market. To report that, yes, big business values money over health and, no, the EPA doesn’t test a majority of pesticide ingredients would open a big can of worms.

“The public needs to know that chemicals designed for household use are poisons and are not indisputably safe … pesticide labels do not tell the whole story. .. that, in fact, they are lying by omission. More consumer skepticism about pesticides could save lives. Alternatives are available, and health concerns can motivate the public to action-exactly what the chemical industry doesn’t want.

“After Earth Island Journal published my story, the NCAPIEPA trial came to a close. The court ruled that inerts are not exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests. When someone asks what a pesticide’s ingredients are, the EPA is required to list them. This historic ruling significantly expands the public’s right-to-know (if the public finds out about the ruling). I haven’t seen any mass media exposure of the trial’s favorable conclusion,” says Oakley.