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Beefs and Beliefs
Pesticide label inert ingredients Alan Newport
Inert ingredients are listed on the label, but the word "inert" doesn't mean they are utterly neutral.

Can you define an inert chemical?

Words have various meanings and it pays you well to understand how others use these words.

A current flap in my own community reminds me how important it is to understand the meaning of words and how they are used in our complex society.

The background to my story is that a group of several tribes leased an old Indian boarding school, known as Chilocco, to the Department of Homeland Security. The Indian school closed in 1980. Now the DHS has announced it will be testing the movement of biological weapons using "inert" chemicals among some of the buildings. I live nearby. My hometown of Newkirk, Oklahoma, is about seven miles south. The town of Arkansas City, Kansas, is about four miles north.

At last count I saw reported, more than 8,500 residents from the area had signed a petition against the testing and most, if not all, the tribes are upset and/or protesting.

The deception and the lingual treachery about this event, to my mind, is the DHS claim that the testing is safe because these are "inert" chemicals.

That is a prima facie lie.

Those of us who labor in the agricultural industry should know as well or better than anyone that the claim of a chemical ingredient being "inert" is an explanation that chemical does not have direct effect on the purpose and label claims of the product.

Everything you might need to know about the properties of inert ingredients is available on the Environmental Protection Agency websites, but for your immediate edification I'll list a few important facts here.

EPA says, for example, "The name 'inert' does not mean non-toxic. All inert ingredients must be approved by EPA before they can be included in a pesticide. We review safety information about each inert ingredient before approval. If the pesticide will be applied to food or animal feed, a food tolerance is required for each inert ingredient in the product, and we may limit the amount of each inert ingredient in the product."

The agency also explains clearly: "Inerts are chemicals, compounds, and other substances, including common food commodities (e.g., certain edible oils, spices, herbs) and some natural materials (e.g., beeswax, cellulose)."

It says inert ingredients play key roles in pesticide effectiveness and product performance, and lists a few examples of functions inerts may serve:

  • Act as a solvent to help the active ingredient penetrate a plant's leaf surface.
  • Improve the ease of application by preventing caking or foaming.
  • Extend the product's shelf-life.
  • Improve safety for the applicator.
  • Protect the pesticide from degradation due to exposure to sunlight.

EPA also explains that under federal law, the identity of inert ingredients is confidential business information. The law does not require manufacturers to identify inert ingredients by name or percentage on product labels. Typically, only the total percentage of all inert ingredients is required to be on the pesticide product label.

This webpage has much more on the topic:

On another webpage, EPA adds more about toxicity. It says, "The "inert" ingredients in some products may be more toxic or pose greater risks than the active ingredient."

However, it also says most inert ingredients are "not known to pose health or environmental concerns." This information and more is available on this website:

As a matter of fact, EPA also says it is encouraging pesticide manufacturers to stop using the term "inert ingredients" and start using the term "other ingredients," because it is less confusing to consumers.

The term inert used outside agriculture and the regulation of the pesticide industry is essentially the same, as far as I can tell. A quite-common example are the so-called noble gasses, which are classified as inert gasses.

Yet a biomedical paper on these gases makes it clear they have various effects on the human body; some positive and some negative.

"Noble gases are known for their inertness," the authors wrote. "They do not react chemically with any element at normal temperature and pressure. Through that, some of them are known to be biologically active by their sedative, hypnotic and analgesic properties.

"Common inhalation anesthetics are characterized by some disadvantages (toxicity, decreased cardiac output, etc). Inhalation of xenon introduces anesthesia and has none of the above disadvantages, hence xenon seems to be the anesthetic gas of the future (with just one disadvantage – its cost)."

You can search for and find much more on the biological activity of inert gasses if you're of a mind to. Certainly there is much more to support what I've described here.

There is some interesting material being posted to the Facebook page on this issue, called "Stop Chemical Testing at Chilocco."

My point is, if I had not paid attention to pesticide labeling all these years and learned my lessons about the regulatory language, I might have been fooled by this claim that inert equals safe. Because I knew the truth, I also know those telling this lie are untrustworthy, whether by ignorance or by outright deceptiveness.

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