Ohio State University Extension Fact sheet

Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet

Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering

590 Woody Hayes Drive, Columbus, OH 43210

Clopyralid and Other Pesticides in Composts


Frederick C. Michel, Jr.1 and Douglas Doohan2
Departments of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering1, and Horticulture and Crop Science2
OSU-OARDC, Wooster, OH 44691. michel.36@osu.edu

A question that compost users frequently ask is, "What happens to pesticides during composting?" This question is important since even at low levels, certain commonly used pesticides can be toxic in the environment. For example, diazinon (now banned) and pendimethalin (Prowl) are toxic to fish even at concentrations of parts per billion (ppb) in water. Birds are quite sensitive to diazinon poisoning, and as little as 2 parts per million (ppm) of 2,4-D (Weed-B-Gone) or 50 parts per billion of Clopyralid significantly reduce the growth of sensitive plants like tomato.

What Happens to Pesticide Residues in Composts?

For the most part, pesticides are rapidly degraded during the composting process and do not persist at concentrations that affect human health, garden plants, or crops. Studies done in the early 1990s on pesticide residues at composting facilities which accept yard trimmings showed that although many commonly used pesticides are occasionally found on yard trimmings entering the facilities, very low or undetectable levels are present in commercially produced composts. Two exceptions are DDT metabolites and chlordane which, although banned for many years, still persist in the environment. Laboratory studies have confirmed that most commonly used pesticides, including diazinon, 2,4-D, pendimethalin, and atrazine, are degraded to very low levels either chemically or by microorganisms during composting. However, recently an herbicide called Clopyralid (sold under the trade names: Reclaim, Stinger, Transline, Confront, Lontrel, Curtail and Millenium Ultra) has been found in composts at levels that may impact the growth of certain plant species.

Pesticides are lost from composts via many different pathways. The most desirable fate is complete "mineralization" or complete biodegradation to CO2. Another potential fate is volatilization into the atmosphere, which may be accelerated by high composting temperatures. Pesticides can also leach out of compost during rain events. In addition, many pesticide residues are incorporated into the organic matter fraction of compost after biotransformation in a form that is chemically different than the parent compound and therefore not biologically active. It is not desirable for pesticides to remain unchanged during compost production, especially since they could be concentrated as mass and water loss occurs during composting.

A literature review of more than 100 studies on pesticide biodegradation (Buyuksonmez, F., R. Rynk, T.F. Hess, E. Bechinski. 2000. Occurrence, Degradation and Fate of Pesticides during Composting. Compost Sci. Util. 8(1):61-81) concluded that pesticide residues in composting feed stocks do not appear to be a concern, that compost appears safe for food crops, and that none of the composts analyzed in the cited studies exceeded concentrations thought to affect human health or be phytotoxic to sensitive plants.

Clopyralid: A Persistent Pesticide That Can Cause Problems

Since this review was published, compost contamination problems have been documented with an herbicide known as "clopyralid" in Ohio, Washington, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California. This herbicide, produced by Dow AgroSciences, is sold under the following trade names: Reclaim, Stinger, Transline, Confront, Lontrel, Curtail, and Millenium Ultra. It is used to control broadleaf weeds, including Canada thistle, perennial sow-thistle, coltsfoot, and other species primarily on rangeland, grass pastures, lawns, non-cropland areas, and rights-of-way.

The problem is that, unlike most pesticides, clopyralid is very persistent in composts and manures and is largely unaffected by the composting process. Most plants are not damaged by clopyralid, even at rates used on lawns and agricultural crops. However, plants in the bean family (Leguminosae), the potato/tomato family (Solonaceae), and the sunflower family (Compositae) are very sensitive to this herbicide. It can stunt tomato, clover, lettuce, pea, lentil, sunflower, pepper, and bean plants at levels in compost as low as 10 parts per BILLION! Since the level of clopyralid on grass the day of application is 10,000 to 50,000 ppb, even a small amount of contaminated material entering a composting facility or directly applied to sensitive crops can cause major problems.

Leaf cupping on a tomato plant Atypical leaf development in a pepper plant Shoot malformation on a pinto bean plant
Tomato plant grown in compost containing residues of clopyralid showing leaf cupping (courtesy Washington State University). Pepper plant grown in Clopyralid contaminated compost displaying atypical leaf development (courtesy Pennsylvania State University). Pinto bean plant grown in potting soil containing residues of clopyralid showing shoot malformation (courtesy Washington State University).

Clopyralid residues at levels well above those capable of injuring certain plants have been detected in grass clippings, straw, leaves, manure and bedding, and finished composts. The states of Washington and California recently banned clopyralid use in residential lawn care for this reason. Species in the Leguminosae, Solonaceae, and Compositae are so sensitive that a small amount of clopyralid-treated grass, collected along with leaves in the fall, has been shown to contain enough clopyralid to stunt growth. The most sensitive plants to clopyralid are red clover, sunflower, peas, and tomato (Table 2).

Table 2. Lowest clopyralid concentrations in compost based growing mixes where herbicide effects were observed.
  Clopyralid Concentration (parts per billion)
Plant Type Day 14 Day 40 Day 72 Day 91
Grass, most ornamentals >30000 >30000 >30000 >30000
Wheat >300 >300 >300  
Sweet Basil >300 >300 >300  
Japanese Buckwheat >300 >300    
Cucumber 100 10    
Lettuce 10 10 10  
Tomato 3 3    
Peas, Beans 10 1    
Sunflower 1 1 3  
Red Clover 1 1 3 3
Source: W. Brinton, E. Evans, Composting News, April 2002.

In addition to yard trimmings, agricultural products can also become contaminated with clopyralid and a related compound called picloram (Table 1). When fed to cattle, these herbicides pass directly through the animal and are excreted in the manure. For example, horse manures tested at Washington State University, and used in a local garden, showed damaging levels of clopyralid. Cattle manure can also contain these residues if the animals graze or eat grass or hay where these compounds have been applied.

Table 1. Persistence, decay rate, and safe concentrations of commonly used herbicides that may be found in compost feedstocks and composts.
Pesticide Trade Name Reported Half Life in Soil (days) Estimated Composting Half Life (days) Plant Safe Conc. in Soil (ppb)
2,4-D Weed-B-Gon, Hi-Dep® Weedar® 64 Weed RHAP A-4D®, Weed RHAP A 7 7-14 500
Atrazine AAtrex®, Atratol®, Atrazine 100-300 21-50 nd
Clopyralid Stinger®, Reclaim®, Transline®. Confront, Curtail, Millenium Ultra 15-287 1-2 yearsa 3
Diazinon Basudin, Dazzel, Gardentox, Kayazol, Knox Out, Nucidol, Spectracide, Diazinon 14-28 1-2 na
Dicamba Banvel®, Banex®, Trooper® 7-42 nd 50
Glyphosate Roundup®, Rodeo®, Accord® 3-130 nd nd
MCPP Kilprop, Mecopar, Triester-II, Mecomin-D, Triamine-II, Triplet TriPower, Trimec-Encore, U46 KV Fluid < 60 nd 600
Pendimethalin Prowl, AC 92553, Accotab, Go-Go-San, Herbadox, Penoxalin, Sipaxol, Stomp and Way-Up. 90 7-14 100
Picloram Tordon®, Grazon®, Access®, Pathway 20-300 nd 10
Abbreviations: nd-no data, na-not applicable, a-limited data.

Organic farmers are especially concerned about this issue since they often rely on composts and manure to supply soil fertility. In addition to the likelihood of crop injury as described above, if herbicide residues are found on these farms, organic certification is lost for at least three years.

What Can Be Done

Links to More Information

http://css.wsu.edu/compost/compost.htm (Bioassay)

Click here for PDF version of this Fact Sheet.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extension are available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without regard to race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.

Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and Director, OSU Extension.

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