pp 1-50 | Cite as

Pesticides and Related Toxicants in the Atmosphere

  • James E. Woodrow
  • Kate A. Gibson
  • James N. SeiberEmail author
Part of the Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology book series


Pesticides and other toxicants released into the environment can contaminate air, water, soil, and biota. This review focuses on sources, exposures, fate, analysis, and trends. The potential for exposures due to atmospheric transport and deposition of pesticides and related contaminants may pose risks to humans and wildlife. Emissions of chemicals to air are related to physicochemical properties (e.g., vapor pressure and chemical stability). Experimental design and computer-based modeling, as related to emissions and dispersion of pesticides along transects downwind from release sources, will be discussed using the example of pesticide volatilization and drift in California agriculture that results in the transport and deposition downwind to the Sierra Nevada mountains, where much work has been done to refine exposure data for use in risk assessment and management. Predictably, those chemicals found frequently in air are those used most extensively, have multiple emission sources, and resist degradation. Yet to be determined are definitive connections with adverse impacts to humans and wildlife, although the accumulating evidence suggests that endocrine disrupting chemicals, ChE inhibitors, and others warrant further attention. Steps that are being taken to limit emissions, such as in pest control and fuel combustion, offer promising opportunities for improving the quality of air and of the overall environment. Chemical degradation rates and products from trace organics in the air merit more attention, as do the potential for activation by photooxidation and bioaccumulation in food chains. The potential effect of climate change, on atmospheric processes affecting contaminant behavior, is an area ripe for further study.



American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists


Bio-concentration factor

California DPR

California Department of Pesticide Regulation


California Air Resources Board


Colony collapse disorder










Ethylene dibromide


Enrichment factor


Environmental Protection Agency


S-ethyl dipropylthiocarbamate


European Union


Food and Drug Administration


Hazardous air pollutants




Long-range transport


2-Methyl-4-chlorophenoxyacetic acid


Methyl isocyanate


Methyl isothiocyanate


National Centers for Environmental Information, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health


National Wildlife Federation/National Weather Service




Ozone depletion potential


Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment




Occupational Safety and Health Administration


Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons


Peroxyacetyl nitrates


Polychlorinated biphenyls


Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins


Particulate matter


Persistent organic pollutants


Semi-volatile organic compounds


Toxic air contaminants




Trifluoroacetic acid


United Nations Environment Programme


US Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service


US Geological Survey


Volatile organic compounds


World Health Organization



We express our thanks to the dozens of staff and students with whom we have worked in a number of studies through the years. The various institutions represented were the University of California, Davis, the University of Nevada, Reno, USDA-ARS, the California Air Resources Board, and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. We appreciate the insights that staff and students have brought to these efforts and their perseverance and hard work in conducting often-difficult laboratory and fieldwork studies essential to understanding the subject of pesticides and other chemical contaminants in air.

Special recognition is given to the contributions of our valued collaborators Dwight Glotfelty (1944–1990) and Michael Majewski (1953–2016) who contributed so much to the understanding of pesticides in the air. Both passed away at relatively young ages in the prime of their research careers.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.



ACGIH (American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists)

To encourage the interchange of experience among industrial hygiene workers and collect accessible information to aid them in fulfilling their duties.

Cal EPA (California Environmental Protection Agency)

Restore, protect, and enhance the environment to ensure public health and environmental quality by enforcing laws to regulate air, water, and soil quality and reducing pesticide usage and waste.

California DPR

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) works to improve human health and the environment by regulating pesticide sales and use by fostering reduced-risk pest management.

CARB (California Air Resources Board)

Promote and protect public health, welfare, and ecological resources through reduction of air pollutants while considering the effects on the state’s economy.

EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)

To protect human health and the environment by ensuring federal laws for protection, reducing environmental and human health risks, making sustainable communities, and working with nations to protect the global environment.

EU (European Union)

Promote human rights internally and nationally by following core values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.

FDA (Food and Drug Administration)

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for protecting the public health by assuring safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, US food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.

NWF/NWS (National Wildlife Federation)/(National Weather Service)

Protecting wildlife and habitat while inspiring future generations of conservationists. Provide weather, water, and climate data, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life, and property and enhancement of the national economy.

OEHHA (Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment)

Protect the environment and enhance public health by scientific evaluation of risks from hazardous substances.

OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)

To ensure safe and healthful working conditions for men and women by enforcing standards and provide training, education, and assistance.

Prop 65 (Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986)

Protect California citizens and the state’s drinking water sources from chemicals that could cause health and reproductive harm and inform citizens about exposure to those chemicals.

UNEP (United Nations Environment Program)

Promotes implementation of sustainable development in the environment within the United Nations system and serves as an advocate for the environment.

USDA-ARS (United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service)

A research agency finding solutions to agricultural problems that affect Americans from field to table. They provide information access to ensure safety of food, enhance resources, assess nutritional needs of Americans, and sustain an agricultural economy.

USGS (United States Geological Survey)

Provides information on the health of the environment, threats from natural hazards, natural resources people rely on, and impacts of climate change to provide useable and relevant information.

WHO (World Health Organization)

Direct and coordinate international health within the United Nations’ system, supporting countries to support national health policy and strategies.



Extremely small particles suspended in the atmosphere that scatter and absorb sunlight when sufficiently large.


The gaseous envelope surrounding the earth that consists of nitrogen (78.1% volume mixing ratio), oxygen (20.9% volume mixing ratio), and traces of other gases such as argon, helium, carbon dioxide (0.035% volume mixing ratio), and ozone. The atmosphere also contains water vapor (~1% volume mixing ratio), clouds, and fog (

Clouds and fog

A cloud is a visible mass of particles of condensed vapor suspended in the atmosphere of a planet or moon. Fog is a cloud at low elevation (


Hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), also known as toxic air pollutants, are those that cause or may cause serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, endocrine disruption, and other adverse environmental and ecological effects.

Human exposure

Human exposure to toxic chemicals occurs via inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact exposure, combined with potency, is used to estimate “risk”.

Long-range transport

Long-range transport of air pollutants refers to the atmospheric transport of air pollutants within a moving air mass for a distance greater than 100 km.

Particulate matter

A complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets. Particle pollution is made up of acids such as nitrates and sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles.


Chemicals released by an organism into its environment enabling it to communicate with other members of its own species (

Sampling efficiency

The ratio of the measured mean concentration to that in the free-stream air. EPA/600/R-12/646 |, October 2012 |.


Chemicals that mediate interactions between organisms. Semiochemicals are subdivided into allelochemicals and pheromones depending on whether the interaction is interspecific or intraspecific, respectively (


The region of the atmosphere between the troposphere and the mesosphere. Ranges from around 8 km at the poles, or 15 km at the equator, to about 50 km. The temperature in the lower stratosphere can change due to latitude and season, but, in the upper stratosphere, temperature generally increases with height due to absorption of solar radiation by ozone (


Semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) are a group of compounds that include pesticides, cleaning agents, personal care products, and additives. These organic molecules are abundant in the gas and condensed phases, represented by vapor pressures between 10−5 and 0.1 Pa. Higher-vapor pressures greater than about 0.1 Pa favor vapor phase, while vapor pressures below about 10−5 Pa tend to favor the particulate phase. This distribution between particulate and vapor phase is affected by temperature and the amount of background PM in the air, among other factors, and is important in regards to chemical reactivity, deposition, and exposure.


Toxic air contaminants (TACs), also referred to as toxic air pollutants or hazardous air pollutants, are airborne pollutants that may be expected to result in an increase in mortality or serious illness or which pose a present or potential hazard to human health.


The lowest part of the atmosphere from the surface to about 9 km in the high latitudes to 16 km in the tropics. This is where clouds and weather generally occur (


A substance in the gaseous state as distinguished from the liquid or solid state. Also includes diffused matter that is suspended in air and impairing its transparency (


Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from some solids and liquids including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, office equipment, and permanent markers.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • James E. Woodrow
    • 1
  • Kate A. Gibson
    • 2
  • James N. Seiber
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.University of Nevada, RenoRenoUSA
  2. 2.Department of ChemistryUniversity of California, DavisDavisUSA
  3. 3.Department of Environmental ToxicologyUniversity of California, DavisDavisUSA

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