The EPA is supposed to be our watchdog, protecting consumers against environmental harms through the actions or inactions of companies or individuals. The agency has friends and foes on both sides of the political aisle, but outside of Washington, it’s hard to think that anyone really gives the EPA much of a vote of confidence. That becomes especially true when you hear stories like the one we’re going to tell below. You see, the effort to get companies to disclose the active and inert ingredients found in their pesticides is one of the more shocking examples of government bureaucracy, corruption, and bad science we’ve come across in a long time.
History of Pesticide Labelling
Over 10 years ago, during the Obama administration, 22 environmental groups along with several state attorneys general filed a petition for pesticide companies to start disclosing more than 350 chemicals identified in their products, but not found on the label. These compounds, often categorized as inactive or inert were nowhere to be found across multiple manufacturers of pesticides such as Roundup. 3 years later, the EPA finally released a Notice of Proposed Rule-making (ANPR) calling for public comment on two possible rule changes: One rule to make disclosing toxic and harmful chemicals a requirement whether they are inert or not, and a second rule simply saying that ALL chemicals in pesticides should be disclosed.
Now, asking for public input is very important, but after nearly 5 years of feet-dragging by the EPA, the same environmental groups had to protest the undue delays and demand action.
And action they got. The EPA rescinded the ANPR, and sent a denial letter to the petition holders, arguing that they were not in the business of label-making and that a voluntary labelling program was a better approach. This is significant, because it’s a shirking of duties on a legal technicality. Mandatory rules regarding printing product labels is indeed a departure for the department, but in the name of transparency and full disclosure of the chemicals they expose consumers with, it is completely consistent with the EPA’s charter. In 2016, a California judge disagreed, citing that the responsibilities of the EPA lay far away from rule-making and labelling concerns of the petition holders.
So here we sit…
What Of These “Inert” Pesticide Chemicals Then?
Here is where we really run into the thicket. We’re bickering about whether to DISCLOSE “inert” compounds in pesticides while the definition of inert has nothing to do with whether or not the chemical might be harmful to humans! Let me say that another way: the inert chemicals found in these pesticide formulas are “inert” as far as their use in killing pests directly, but say nothing about their impact on humans.
Terrific, right? So it’s up to us to try and determine what these chemicals might be, since our leadership and our private sector appear to be colluding to avoid transparency, however well-intentioned their reasoning. So let’s take a look at some of the known “inert” chemicals that MAY be found in our pesticides and hence in our foods.
Sodium Aluminum Silicate – this is actually a compound that is found in food additives as well as pesticides. In small doses it is said to be safe, but there are cases of people having immediate reactions to ingesting aluminum silicate and the long-term accumulation of metals as a neurotoxin is only now starting to be better understood. Because of this, the long-term health effects of aluminum silicate will emerge over time, unfortunately.
Polyethoxylated Tallowamine, or POEA – since 2009(!) we’ve known that this “inert” compound was extremely damaging to embryonic and fetal tissue in pregnant women. Bizarrely, this compound all by itself was more destructive to human cells than the active ingredients in Roundup!
Turpentine Oil – long used medicinally, it is now clear that turpentine oil in large doses or consumed orally can lead to grave physical harm and even death. It is recommended to avoid use where children are present, who appear to be more susceptible to this compound. In December 2016, turpentine oil was added to a list of proposed banned substances from the “inerts” list (72 in all)
But even listing compounds like this may miss the point. It’s not that any of these inerts are certain to be dangerous by themselves (which appears to be the case with the examples above) but that the inert ingredients increase the toxicity of the pesticides in ways that are not evaluated or accounted for in any way by the EPA!
A 2012 study backed up the idea that “inert” compounds are anything but. The inert ingredients often act as catalyzers to make the active ingredients more effective. But the combination of inert + active is never considered. Why not?
Any Hope For The Future?
Even now the EPA’s own website has a convoluted mess of overlapping definitions of “inert” depending on classifications such as food or non-food usage, and they appear to be missing the point in the same way. The chemical compounds we use for pesticides, both disclosed and undisclosed compounds, are very likely far more toxic than we ever measure them to be.
Regardless of your political leanings, we need the EPA to be an aggressive protector of our environmental health and well-being. The current EPA activities appear to be walking back even the inadequate compound banning produced late last year. If those rules go out the window, so do the only strands of protection we have in conventional agriculture. For years people have accused organic farmers and organic consumers of unrealistic alarmism. The reality is, the EPA completely misses the boat on the pesticide question, and it will be all of us either risking the wild west of pesticide toxicity, or finally getting serious about organically raised produce.
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