Reversing a decade-old decision, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it plans to require pesticide manufacturers to disclose to the public the inert ingredients in their products. An inert ingredient is anything added to a pesticide that does not kill or control a pest. In some cases, those ingredients are toxic, but companies do not identify them on pesticide labels. For 11 years, EPA denied petitions seeking disclosure of the chemicals but now the new administration says it plans to draft a rule that will increase transparency and encourage companies to replace toxic substances. Manufacturers worry about revealing trade secrets.
By Marla Cone
Editor in Chief
Environmental Health News
December 23, 2009
Reversing a decade-old decision, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it plans to require pesticide manufacturers to disclose to the public the inert ingredients in their products.
An inert ingredient is anything added to a pesticide that does not kill or control a pest.
| Inert ingredients are often by volume the largest contributor to pesticide formulations.|
In some cases, those ingredients are toxic compounds, but companies do not identify them on pesticide labels.
Nearly 4,000 inerts - including several hundred that are considered hazardous under other federal rules - are used in agricultural and residential pesticides.
The EPA’s announcement that it will initiate the rulemaking comes 11 years after it had first been petitioned by environmental groups and state officials seeking public disclosure of the ingredients. In 2001, the agency denied those petitions filed by ten state attorney generals and an environmental coalition, and its decision was upheld by a federal judge in 2004.
Now, under a new administration, the EPA decided that drafting a new regulation will “increase transparency” and help protect public health.
“EPA believes disclosure of inert ingredients on product labels is important to consumers who want to be aware of all potentially toxic chemicals, both active and inert ingredients, in pesticide products,” according to the agency’s website.
Formaldehyde, bisphenol A, sulfuric acid, toluene, benzene and styrene are among the ingredients that are allowed in pesticides but are not identified on labels. Some are carcinogens, while some may cause reproductive or respiratory problems if people are exposed. Other inerts seem benign, such as coffee grounds, sunflower oil and licorice extract.
One goal of the planned rule is that pesticide companies would be more likely to replace toxic chemicals if they must identify all ingredients on their labels.
“By embarking on such rulemaking, EPA intends to effect a sea change in how inert ingredient information is made available to the public,” Debra Edwards, the EPA’s director of pesticide programs, said in a September letter to the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown, Jr. and other petitioners.
Edwards wrote that the EPA will seek “a significant amount of input” from stakeholders – the pesticide industry, environmentalists and other experts – as they craft the new rule “because of the magnitude of the change and the difficult issues facing the agency.”
Under current law, pesticide companies already disclose all ingredients to the EPA. The new rule would make them public.
Jay Vroom, chief executive officer of CropLife America, which represents pesticide manufacturers, said Tuesday that the companies are concerned they will be revealing confidential business information, or trade secrets, about their formulas.
Vroom said it was “just baffling” that EPA will draft a rule when the pesticide products already undergo risk assessments and are approved for use. He said EPA officials are using “unbridled rhetoric” when addressing the issue of inerts.
“We believe these products already have been regulated to protect public health,” he said. “What is confusing is why the agency has been out talking about these products as hazardous inert ingredients. To me, that’s an oxymoron."
Vroom said the industry will work with the EPA but that no timetable for stakeholder meetings has emerged yet.
Lawyers in the California Attorney General's Office consider the decision a victory but they are eager to see details of the EPA's proposed rule, which is probably a year away.
"It's impossible to predict the outcome of this, except to say we'll have more disclosure than we have today," said Deputy Attorney General Claudia Polsky.
Options the EPA said it will consider include disclosure of all inert ingredients regardless of hazard or only those that are considered potentially hazardous. Some of the requirements may be voluntary.
“EPA is not committing and indeed legally cannot commit, to any particular outcome for rulemaking,” Edwards wrote in her letter to the petitioners. The agency's advance notice of a rule was published Tuesday, but the draft rule outlining the details will take months.
In 2006, the Northwest Coalition and 15 state attorney generals sent their latest petitions to the EPA, specifically seeking the listing of 374 chemicals on labels. Those chemicals already are considered hazardous under other environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act.
In September, the EPA denied that part of the petition, preferring to enact a new rule and saying that the chemical-by-chemical approach was not practical and “would potentially result in numerous challenges regarding individual products.”
Pesticide manufacturers are allowed to use nearly 4,000 inert compounds in their insecticides, herbicides and other pest-killing products. Since 1987, they have been required to list on labels only about 50, including asbestos and cadmium. Nearly all of those have disappeared from pesticides since then.
Under federal law, only the EPA has authority to require information on pesticide labels, so state officials cannot act on their own.
Some scientists have been concerned about the toxic effects of inert ingredients. A recent study found that one, called polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, used in the popular herbicide Roundup is more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself.