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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pesticide Right to Know

Air Date: Week of

Active ingredients are listed on most pesticide containers, but the so-called inert ingredients have have not. That is all changing, as Terry FitzPatrick reports. Due to a recent Federal court decision, manufacturers will soon be disclosing more about their formulas, and consumers will know more about what they're using.


NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. If you read the label on a package of hot dogs or a can of soda or a shampoo bottle, you'll see a list of ingredients. But if you look closely at containers of home garden pesticides and herbicides, you'll find few of the actual ingredients posted on the label. Federal law allows manufacturers to keep their formulas a secret, and environmental groups have been fighting this law for years. Recently, they won a major victory in Federal court. The decision may lead to greater disclosure about the potential hazards of using pesticides. We get the story from Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick of our northwest bureau in Seattle.

(A door opens)

FITZ PATRICK: At Swanson's garden shop in Seattle, you can find a spray or powder to kill just about anything: ants, weeds, fungus. Horticulturalist Alex Lavilla helps customers pick the right product for whatever is plaguing their garden.

LAVILLA: Weed Be Gone, you would use this in this spray application bottle around the bottom of plants...

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Lavilla gets much of his information from product labels. Pesticide and herbicide manufacturers are required to list a product's active ingredients and identify the plants or insects it will kill. But Mr. Lavilla wants more information. Pesticides can sometimes inflict unintended damage. Horticulturalists often face unhappy customers who've returned with withered plants, the very plants they were trying to save.

LAVILLA: They'll come back and the leaves will be totally damaged, due to some element in the product that I didn't know about.

FITZ PATRICK: That happens.

LAVILLA: It happens all the time, yeah.

FITZ PATRICK: These other elements are compounds that help a pesticide stick to plant leaves or dissolve in water. They comprise the bulk of most pesticide formulations. However, because they're not the chemicals that directly kill bugs and weeds, Federal law does not require their disclosure on product labels. Manufacturers simply call them inert ingredients. The problem is, many of these chemicals aren't truly inert. Norma Grier directs the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides in Eugene, Oregon.

GRIER : People generally think that something that's an inert ingredient is going to be harmless, and that's hardly the case at all.

FITZ PATRICK: Some inert ingredients are flammable. Others are toxic. Some can cause allergic reactions and others might disrupt the hormone systems of humans and animals. Ms. Grier 's coalition wants to end the secrecy that surrounds these compounds and their potential side effects.

GRIER : Our goal is to get all ingredients listed on pesticide product labels. I think it's an issue of, you know, truth in labeling, where industry is obliged to provide adequate information so that consumers can make reasoned decisions about the consequences of using those consumer products.

FITZ PATRICK: The push for greater disclosure has sparked a complicated legal battle pitting a basic American value, the right to know, against a fundamental principle of American business, the right to protect trade secrets. Industry maintains that disclosing inert ingredients would lead to a flood of copycat products. John McCarthy is with the American Crop Protection Association, a pesticide manufacturing trade group.

McCARTHY: The reason the industry has the position of not listing their other ingredients, other than the active ingredient, on their labels, is for competitive reasons. They feel that this would provide their competitors with information that otherwise they wouldn't be able to get.

FITZ PATRICK: Environmentalists dispute that contention. They say a list of ingredients won't really help competitors copy a pesticide. Just like telling someone to buy flour and yeast wouldn't really tell them how to make a loaf of bread. Norma Grier.

GRIER : Pesticide manufacturers have made these sweeping claims that this information is trade secret, and we're convinced that it doesn't qualify as trade secrecy.

FITZ PATRICK: For the past 2 years, Ms. Grier has made this argument in court. Her coalition filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act. The case involved 6 popular brands of weed killer and details about them collected by the Environmental Protection Agency. The complete formulation of every pesticide sold in America is on file at EPA. But under the doctrine of trade secrecy, these records have been off limits to the public unless a manufacturer approves their release. In October, Federal Judge James Robinson ordered EPA to break the secrecy and give out nearly all the information the coalition wanted. It's the first disclosure of inert ingredients over the objections of manufacturers. The ruling was not a total victory for environmentalists. The judge left open the possibility that industry could put up a better legal fight over other products in the future. But according to the EPA's Lynn Goldman, her agency will no longer have to automatically honor requests for secrecy.

GOLDMAN: What happened in the case is that the entire industry kind of pulled together to support a position that we can't disclose any of the information at all. What the judge said is that no, that's not the case. That they have to demonstrate to us that there would be some kind of a substantial harm to them competitively, resulting from the disclosure of the information. Which I think actually pushes the balance on this issue much more toward the consumer who wants the information.

FITZ PATRICK: Although some companies may argue for secrecy in the future, one manufacturer has adopted a policy of openness. St. Louis-based Monsanto Corporation, maker of hundreds of pesticides including Round-Up Weed Killer, says it will give the names of inert ingredients to anyone who calls its toll-free hotline. Spokeswoman Lisa Drake.

DRAKE: We felt that if people wanted to know this information they should have a right to have it. We have made it our practice to provide these ingredients when people request them. We only get about 4 or 5 requests a year, just not very many.

FITZ PATRICK: Environmentalists, however, say voluntary programs are no substitute for government mandates. That's because the process of getting information from a company can be difficult.

(Dial tone. Touch tone sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: When Living on Earth contacted Monsanto's hotline, the company was less than forthcoming.

FITZ PATRICK: Yes, I'm calling to find out some information about Round-Up? On the label here it says that 99.04% of Round-Up is inert ingredients, and I'm wondering is there a way to find out what those inert ingredients are? There's really no way? Hmm. It's a secret recipe. Wow. It's Round-Up kills the root, ready to use...

FITZ PATRICK: The next day a Monsanto official apologized for the response to our call, saying the hotline operator made a mistake and the information should be available to people who call in the future. Round-Up's major inert ingredient is called etoxylated tallo-amine, and there's a running debate about its safety. Monsanto calls this compound a harmless soap. However, it's listed as hazardous by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. There have been other initiatives to provide more details about the chemicals used to make pesticides. Monsanto, for example, has responded to written requests, and all companies provide information to poison control centers. There's also an ongoing effort by EPA to force companies to remove some of the most dangerous inert compounds from their formulas. Still, environmentalists say they won't be satisfied until all inert ingredient are on the label, so shoppers can decide if they want to buy a product in the first place. The court decision this fall won't make that a reality, but activists say it's a big step in that direction. For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.



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