Pesticides in our Environment

What Happens to Pesticides

When a pesticide is released into the environment many things happen to it. Sometimes what happens is beneficial. For example, the leaching of some herbicides into the root zone can give you better weed control.

Sometimes, releasing pesticides into the environment can be harmful, as not all of the applied chemical reaches the target site. For example, runoff can move a herbicide away from target weeds. The chemical is wasted, weed control is reduced, and there is more chance of damaging other plants and polluting soil and water. Or some of the pesticide may drift downwind and outside of the intended application site.

Many processes affect what happens to pesticides in the environment. These processes include adsorption, transfer, breakdown and degradation. Transfer includes processes that move the pesticide away from the target site. These include volatilization, spray drift, runoff, leaching, absorption and crop removal.

Each of these processes is explained in the following sections.

Environmental degradation of pesticides

Transfer Processes
Adsorption is the binding of pesticides to soil particles. The amount a pesticide is adsorbed to the soil varies with the type of pesticide, soil, moisture, soil pH, and soil texture. Pesticides are strongly adsorbed to soils that are high in clay or organic matter. They are not as strongly adsorbed to sandy soils.Most soil-bound pesticides are less likely to give off vapours or leach through the soil. They are also less easily taken up by plants. For this reason you may require the higher rate listed on the pesticide label for soils high in clay or organic matter.

Volatilization is the process of solids or liquids converting into a gas, which can move away from the initial application site. This movement is called vapour drift. Vapour drift from some herbicides can damage nearby crops.

Pesticides volatize most readily from sandy and wet soils. Hot, dry, or windy weather and small spray drops increase volatilization.

Where recommended, incorporating the pesticide into the soil can help reduce volatilization.

Spray Drift is the airborne movement of spray droplets away from a treatment site during application.

Spray drift is affected by:

  • spray droplet size – the smaller the droplets, the more likely they will drift
  • wind speed – the stronger the wind, the more pesticide spray will drift
  • distance between nozzle and target plant or ground – the greater the distance, the more the wind can affect the spray

Drift can damage nearby sensitive crops or can contaminate crops ready to harvest. Drift may also be a hazard to people, domestic animals, or pollinating insects. Drift can contaminate water in ponds, streams, and ditches and harm fish or other aquatic plants and animals. Excessive drift also reduces the pesticide applied to the target and can reduce the effectiveness of a treatment.

<!–Ways to reduce spray drift are discussed in the Drift Management section of the Environmental Protection heading on this website.

–>Runoff is the movement of pesticides in water over a sloping surface. The pesticides are either mixed in the water or bound to eroding soil. Runoff can also occur when water is added to a field faster than it can be absorbed into the soil. Pesticides may move with runoff as compounds dissolved in the water or attached to soil particles.

The amount of pesticide runoff depends on:

  • the slope
  • the texture of the soil
  • the soil moisture content
  • the amount and timing of a rain-event (irrigation or rainfall)
  • the type of pesticide used

Runoff from areas treated with pesticides can pollute streams, ponds, lakes, and wells. Pesticide residues in surface water can harm plants and animals and contaminate groundwater. Water contamination can affect livestock and crops downstream.

Pesticide runoff can be reduced by:

  • using minimum tillage techniques to reduce soil erosion
  • grading surface to reduce slopes
  • diking to contain runoff
  • leaving border vegetation and plant cover to contain runoff

Pesticide losses from runoff are greatest when it rains heavily right after you spray. Reduce the chances of runoff by watching the weather forecast. If heavy rain is expected, delay spraying to avoid runoff. Irrigate according to label instructions.

Leaching is the movement of pesticides in water through the soil. Leaching occurs downward, upward, or sideways. The factors influencing whether pesticides will be leached into groundwater include characteristics of the soil and pesticide, and their interaction with water from a rain-event such as irrigation or rainfall. These factors are summarized in the table below.

Leaching can be increased when:

  • the pesticide is water soluble
  • the soil is sandy
  • a rain-event occurs shortly after spraying
  • the pesticide is not strongly adsorbed to the soil

Groundwater may be contaminated if pesticides leach from treated fields, mixing sites, washing sites, or waste disposal areas.

Summary of Groundwater Contamination Potential as Influenced
by Water, Pesticide and Soil Characteristics
Risk of Groundwater Contamination
Low risk
High risk
Pesticide characteristics
Water solubility low high
Soil adsorption high low
Persistence low high
Soil characteristics
Texture fine clay coarse sand
Organic matter high low
Macropores few, small many, large
Depth to groundwater deep
(100 ft or more)
(20 ft or less)
Water volume
Rain/irrigation small volumes at infrequent intervals large volumes at frequent intervals
Based on: McBride, D. K. 1989. Managing pesticides to prevent groundwater contamination. North Dakota State University Extension Service, Publication E-979.

Similar factors influence pesticide movement in surface runoff, except that pesticides with low water solubility may move with surface runoff if they are strongly adsorbed to soil particles and have some degree of persistence.

Soil characteristics are important to pesticide movement. Clay soils have a high capacity to adsorb many chemicals including pesticides and soil nutrients. Sandy soils have a much lower capacity to adsorb pesticides. Organic matter in the soil also can adsorb pesticides. Soil structure influences the movement of water and pesticides. Coarse textured sandy soils with large air spaces allow more rapid movement of water than fine textured or compacted soils with fewer air spaces. Other characteristics of the site, such as depth to groundwater, or distance to surface water, are important. Finally, the pattern of water falling on the soil through irrigation or rainfall is significant. Small volumes of water at infrequent intervals are less likely to move pesticides than large volumes of water at more frequent intervals.

Absorption is the uptake of pesticides and other chemicals into plants or microorganisms. Most pesticides break down once they are absorbed. Pesticide residues may be broken down or remain inside the plant or animal and be released back into the environment when the animal dies or as the plant decays.

Some pesticides stay in the soil long enough to be absorbed by plants grown in a field years later. They may damage or leave residues in future crops.

Crop Removal through harvest or grazing may remove pesticide residues.

Degradation or Breakdown Processes
Degradation is the process of pesticide breakdown after application. Pesticides are broken down by microbes, chemical reactions, and light or photodegradation. This process may take anywhere from hours or days to years, depending on environmental conditions and the chemical characteristics of the pesticide. Pesticides that break down quickly generally do not persist in the environment or on the crop. However pesticides that break down too rapidly may only provide short-term control.Microbial breakdown is the breakdown of chemicals by microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria.

Microbial breakdown tends to increase when:

  • temperatures are warm
  • soil pH is favourable
  • soil moisture and oxygen are adequate
  • soil fertility is good

Chemical breakdown is the breakdown of pesticides by chemical reactions in the soil. The rate and type of chemical reactions that occur are influenced by:

  • the binding of pesticides to the soil
  • soil temperatures
  • pH levels – Many pesticides, especially the organophosphate insecticides, break down more rapidly in alkaline soils or in spray tank water with a high pH level.
  • moisture

Photodegradation is the breakdown of pesticides by sunlight. All pesticides are susceptible to photodegradation to some extent. The rate of breakdown is influenced by the intensity and spectrum of sunlight, length of exposure, and the properties of the pesticide. Pesticides applied to foliage are more exposed to sunlight than pesticides that are incorporated into the soil. Pesticides may break down faster inside plastic-covered greenhouses than inside glass greenhouses, since glass filters out much of the ultraviolet light that degrades pesticides.


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