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Publication #PI166

Pesticide Characteristics1

Frederick Fishel2

This EDIS publication provides a description of the following pesticide characteristics: solubility, adsorption, persistence, and volatility.

Introduction

To understand how pesticides move in the environment, one must first understand certain physical and chemical characteristics of pesticides, as well as how these characteristics determine a pesticide's interaction with the environment. Some of these characteristics are described in the Physical and Chemical Properties section (Figure 1) of a pesticide's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). Other pesticide properties are found in either the MSDS' Stability and Reactivity section or Ecological Information section.

Solubility

Solubility is a measure of the ability of a pesticide to dissolve in a solvent, usually water. Pesticides highly soluble in water dissolve easily. Such pesticides are more likely to move with water in surface runoff or to move through the soil in water than are less-soluble pesticides.

In the MSDS, manufacturers use relative terms -- such as miscible, dispersible, suspension, emulsifiable, and soluble in water -- to describe their product's solubility. Some manufacturers will use a numerical value for this description, such as 2.9 mg/L or ppm. Pesticides with a value of 100 ppm and less are considered relatively insoluble while pesticides with values greater than 1,000 ppm are considered very soluble.

Table 1. 
Figure 1. The Physical and Chemical Properties Section of a Pesticide's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)

9. PHYSICAL AND CHEMICAL PROPERTIES

 

Appearance and Odor:

Amber colored liquid with slight phenoxy odor.

Boiling Point:

>212°F (>100°C)

Solubility in Water:

Soluble

Density:

9.0 pounds/gallon

Specific Gravity:

Not determined

Evaporation Rate:

Not determined

Vapor Density:

Not determined

Freezing Point:

32°F (0°C)

Vapor Pressure:

Not determined

pH:

8.0 - 9.2

Viscosity:

Not determined

Note: Physical data are typical values, but may vary from sample to sample. A typical value should not be construed as a guaranteed analysis or as a specification.

Adsorption

Adsorption is the process whereby a pesticide binds to soil particles. Adsorption occurs because of an attraction between the chemical and soil particles. Typically, oil-soluble pesticides are more attracted to clay particles and to organic matter in soil than are water-soluble pesticides. Pesticide molecules with positive charges are more tightly adsorbed to negatively charged soil particles. A pesticide that adsorbs to soil particles is less likely to move from the spray site than is a chemical that does not adsorb tightly to the soil.

Persistence

Persistence is the ability of a pesticide to remain present and active in its original form for an extended period before degrading. A chemical's persistence is described in terms of its half-life, a comparative measure of the time needed for the chemical to degrade. The longer a pesticide's half-life, the more persistent the pesticide. Persistent pesticide residues are sometimes desirable because they provide long-term pest control and reduce the need for repeated applications. However, some persistent pesticides applied to soil, plants, lumber, and other surfaces or spilled into water or on soil can later harm sensitive plants or animals, including humans. It is especially important to prevent persistent pesticides from moving off-site through improper handling, application, drift, leaching, or runoff.

Application of persistent pesticides presents a hazard to persons and non-target animals entering a treated area and may lead to the presence of illegal residues on rotational food or feed crops. Check the label for statements about the persistence of the pesticide and for replanting restrictions. The rate of pesticide degradation relates to the persistence of the pesticide.

Degradation processes break down pesticide compounds into simpler and often less-toxic chemicals. Some pesticides break down rapidly – in a matter of days or even hours. Other pesticides can be detected in the environment for a year or more.

Pesticides are degraded by the following processes:

    • Chemical degradation is the breakdown of chemicals by processes that do not involve living organisms, most commonly by hydrolysis, a reaction with water.

    • Microbial degradation is the process in which chemicals are degraded by soil microorganisms, such as fungi and bacteria.

    • Photodegradation is the breakdown of chemicals in reaction to sunlight.

Water and temperature both affect the degradation of pesticides. Warm, wet conditions can increase the speed of pesticide degradation; cool, dry conditions slow the degradation process.

Volatility

Volatility is the tendency of a pesticide to turn into a gas or vapor. Some pesticides are more volatile than others. The likelihood of pesticide volatilization increases as temperatures and wind increase. Volatility is also more likely under conditions of low relative humidity.

The potential for a pesticide to volatilize is measured by its vapor pressure. This measurement may be described in units of Pa (Pascals) or mmHg (millimeters of mercury). Pesticides that have high vapor-pressure values are more volatile. Vapors from such pesticides can move off-site and cause injury to susceptible plants. Some volatile pesticide products carry label statements that warn handlers of the product's potential for vapor movement (Figure 2).

Figure 2. 

This pesticide label includes a precautionary statement regarding vapor.


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Additional information

Buttler, T., W. Martinkovic, and O.N. Nesheim. 2003. Factors influencing pesticide movement to ground water. EDIS Publication PI-2. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/PI002(accessed April, 2008).

Fishel, F.M. 2005. Understanding material safety data sheet language. EDIS Publication PI-35. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/PI072 (accessed April, 2008).

Footnotes

1.

This document is PI-166, one of a series of the Agronomy Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date, July 2008. Reviewed April 2011. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Frederick Fishel, associate professor, Department of Agronomy, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.