Study shows hazardous herbicide chemical goes airborne

“Dicamba drift” — the movement of the herbicide dicamba off crops through the atmosphere — can result in unintentional damage to neighboring plants. To prevent dicamba drift, other chemicals, typically amines, are mixed with dicamba to “lock” it in place and prevent it from volatilizing, or turning into a vapor that more easily moves in the atmosphere.

Now, new research from the lab of Kimberly Parker, an assistant professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis’ McKelvey School of Engineering, has shed new light on this story by demonstrating for the first time that these amines themselves volatilize, often more than dicamba itself.

Their findings were published Sept. 23 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The volatilization of amines when applied with dicamba may help explain the processes that cause dicamba drift. However, amines are used in other herbicides as well, including as glyphosate, the most-used herbicide in the world. Regardless of the herbicide, the researchers found that amines still volatilized.

If amines, themselves, are released into the atmosphere, they can have a negative impact on human health as they can form cancer-promoting substances. They also affect the climate and atmospheric chemistry. Because of their potential danger and prevalence, the scientific literature is full of research looking at the ways they are released into the atmosphere — except when it comes to their use in herbicide-amine formulations.

“Amines also undergo reactions to form particulate matter — tiny particles that can make their way into the body when inhaled,” Parker said. “Those particles are also toxic and carcinogenic,” and they carry consequences for atmospheric chemistry by affecting climate.

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