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Understanding Chemicals: What Are Solvents, Active & Inert Chemicals and Why Should You Care?

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

In today’s contentious and often hostile regulatory climate, it seems as if almost everything can be argued over. Definitions are disputed, research results are regarded with skepticism, and, in some cases, even basic scientific principles have been called into question.


However, there is one thing that almost everyone can agree upon: The plethora of laws, rules and regulations, especially as they relate to chemicals and their use, are extremely confusing. This is especially true when it comes to the often-misunderstood distinction between inert and active materials used in the manufacture of pesticides and other chemical compounds.

The same is true when it comes to the subject of solvents, and their particular role in all of this. But more about that later.


An Important Distinction

The distinction between inert and active chemicals is important because, contradictory as it might seem, toxic chemicals are frequently used as ‘inert’ ingredients in pesticide products. But how can this be? We certainly shouldn't be surprised that the active ingredients in pesticides are sometimes toxic. After all, they’re created with the express intention of killing a wide variety of pests, e.g. bed bugs, lice, mites, fleas, and so forth.


But why are many of so-called inert ingredients actually toxic? And what does that mean for those of us who use these compounds in our offices, homes and places of work?


The fact is that an inert ingredient is any added substance that is not the active ingredient.


Contrary to popular belief, the term ‘inert’ does not necessarily mean that said substance is actually safe.

It only serves to distinguish between the active ingredient(s) in a pesticide and everything else that goes into its manufacture.


What It Means

As a matter of record, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has compiled an extensive list of chemicals that are used as active ingredients and must be disclosed on the label of any product of which they are a part. Plus, the EPA also requires that these substances are subject to tests aimed at establishing their true toxicity.


The big problem here is that ̶ with a single exception ̶ if any one of the listed chemicals is used as an inert ingredient, it is not subject to any form of regulation or control. In other words, “a chemical with known pesticidal properties can be used as an active ingredient or an inert and it will be regulated according to its designation (as an active or an inert) rather than according to its toxicity.”


Some critics contend that this distinction between active and inert materials is not only misleading, but illogical and arbitrary. It’s worth keeping in mind that over twenty years ago the EPA established new regulations governing inert ing