What's not on the label

  • Bottle of Roundup weedkiller

  The "secret" ingredients in a few widely used pesticides won't be secret anymore, thanks to a small nonprofit group in Eugene, Ore. The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides won a lawsuit in U.S. District Court Oct. 16 against both the Environmental Protection Agency and the pesticide industry, which had claimed that "inert" ingredients are trade secrets.

The court ruled the EPA must divulge, with a few exceptions, all the contents of six pesticides, including Roundup and Velpar, to the public.

While the active ingredients of pesticides that kill or repel pests are identified by law on product labels, "inerts' are defined as anything added to make the product more potent or easier to use, says Caroline Cox of the coalition. The EPA has identified over 2,000 different inerts that make up the bulk of most pesticides; they include everything from eggshells and cookie crumbs to chemicals more toxic than the active ingredients.

Most substances have not been tested by the EPA for toxicity, Cox says, and calling them "inert," or inactive, may be a misnomer. The inerts xylene and nonylphenol, for example, can cause reduced fertility, memory and hearing loss or fetal death, and they could be in many household pesticides. We don't know, Cox points out, because the public isn't privy to that information.

Even though the grassroots organization hopes this case - six years in the making - will set a precedent, Al Heier, spokesman for the EPA, says the court decision changes very little. The EPA must still be very cautious about what information it releases, he says, because, by law, the penalty for revealing a company's formula for a pesticide - a "trade secret' - is up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Each dispute may have to be settled in court, says Heier. With 18,000 pesticide products on the market, NCAP's Cox says the nonprofit's fight for the facts might take a very long time.

*Katie Fesus

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