Only with the blessings of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could a substance as dangerous as benzene carry the label of “inert”.

According to the Miriam-Webster Dictionary, “inert” means “deficient in active properties, especially: lacking a usual or anticipated biological action.”

Inert is not a word that anyone could use to describe benzene. According to the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), benzene is an A1 carcinogen, which means that it’s been proven to cause cancer and wrongful deaths in humans. Benzene is toxic to bone, blood, and the Central Nervous System, and it’s something that should never be a hidden ingredient in any sort of product.

Despite benzene’s status as a confirmed carcinogen, the EPA has always allowed pesticide makers to include it and hundreds of other toxic ingredients in their products without listing them on the label. That means that people who use products such as Ortho Weed-B-Gone and Bonide Grass, Weed and Vegetation Killer, don’t realize that they’re exposing themselves to this deadly substance.

Pesticide labels must list their active ingredients, which are the ones that actually kill the bugs, but everything else falls under the heading of “inert” or “other” ingredients, even though many of those unlisted ingredients are more toxic than the active ingredients.

When these toxic “inert” ingredients are used in other types of products, the manufacturers must disclose their presence and their hazards. The EPA even offers this explanation of the dangers of inert ingredients on a page on its website called The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality:

“In addition to the active ingredient, pesticides are also made up of ingredients that are used to carry the active agent. These carrier agents are called ‘inerts’ in pesticides because they are not toxic to the targeted pest; nevertheless, some inerts are capable of causing health problems.”

In 2006, recognizing the dangers from inerts, the Northwest Coalition for Alternative to Pesticides (NCAP) and a group of attorneys general from 14 states filed petitions with the EPA seeking full disclosure of all ingredients in pesticides.

On September 30, 2009, in an announcement that has taken much too long, the EPA finally stated that it is “moving forward with a plan to disclose the identities of all inert ingredients in pesticides including those that are potentially hazardous.”

One example of the thousands of inert but dangerous ingredients used in pesticides is polyethoxylated tallowamine, which is a component of Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the United States.

Roundup lists glyphosphate as its active ingredient, at 41% of the volume of the product, and Monsanto has stopped using the term “inert ingredients” on Roundup’s label. It now calls them “Other Ingredients.” The label doesn’t say exactly what they are, but scientists have been able to identify them.

Researchers in France have recently released a report that found that Roundup’s inert ingredients worsened the toxic effect of glyphosphate on human cells, even at levels much lower than those used on farms and lawns. Polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself, and the researchers called that “astonishing.”

While that finding is astonishing, no one should take it to mean that glyphosphate itself is safe. The EPA states that glyphosphate carries significant health risks, including congestion of the lungs, increased breathing rates, kidney damage, and reproductive effects.

The EPA has been negligent in waiting so long to require manufacturers to list all the ingredients in their products, and this change in policy is long overdue. Because of that negligence, pesticide manufacturers have knowingly included dangerous and deadly “inert” ingredients in their products, and many Americans have suffered from exposure to these supposedly harmless substances.

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Richard Alexander