According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the government body that regulates pesticides in the U.S., a pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest. Often misunderstood to refer only to insecticides, the term pesticide also applies to herbicides, fungicides, and various other substances used to control pests. Pesticides also include plant regulators, defoliants and desiccants.
Learn about the health and environmental effects of specific pesticides, as well as alternatives, in the Pesticide Gateway.
What’s in a Pesticide Product?
We normally think of a pesticide as the product that can be purchased in the store– the insecticide, the weed killer or the fungicide. 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.
The 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.
Contaminants and Impurities
Contaminants 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 production process.
Metabolites 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.
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. 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.
The Hazards of Inert Ingredients
In general, inert ingredients are minimally tested, however, many are known to state, federal and international agencies to be hazardous to human health. 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.
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.
In addition to reading and following the label directions, consider these tips when using pesticides:
- Make sure kids, pets, and anyone non-essential to the application is out of the area before mixing and applying pesticides.
- Be sure to wear clothing that will protect you when using pesticides. Consider wearing a long sleeve shirt, long pants, and closed-toe shoes in addition to any other protective clothing or equipment required by the label.
- Mix pesticides outdoors or in well-ventilated areas.
- Mix only what you need to use in the short term to avoid storing or disposing of excess pesticide.
- Be prepared for a pesticide spill. Have paper towels, sawdust or kitty litter, garbage bags, and non-absorbent gloves on hand to contain the spill. Avoid using excessive amounts of water, as this may only spread the pesticide and could be harmful to the environment.
- Read the first aid instructions on the label before using the product. Have the telephone number for the Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) available in case you have additional questions.
- Remove personal items, such as toys, clothing, or tools from the spray area to avoid contamination.
- When spraying pesticides indoors, make sure the area is well ventilated.
- When applying pesticides as a spray or dust outside, avoid windy conditions and close the doors and windows to your home.
- After using pesticides, wash your hands before smoking or eating.
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