Making Sense of Wetting Agent Labels, Claims, and Standards

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Making Sense of Wetting Agent Labels, Claims, and Standards

Glen Obear, Director of RDI
Written by Glen Obear, Director of RDI

On January 21st, 2021, the Wisconsin Turfgrass Association held an excellent webinar full of discussion about the latest and greatest turf research and trends. The audience submitted questions, and Dr. Frank Rossi moderated a discussion with speakers including Dr. Doug Soldat, Josh LePine, Dr. Paul Koch, Dr. Brad DeBels, Dr. Bill Kreuser, and myself.

One of the topics that the panel addressed was wetting agents. The discussion highlighted some points of confusion for the industry, so this blog post will provide some perspective and promote further discussion. 

In summary, those topics are:

  • There are many wetting agents on the market, yet their composition is unclear, and it isn’t easy to differentiate them from each other.
  • Do companies make wetting agent labels confusing on purpose?
  • Is there a difference between “penetrant” vs. “retainer” products?

Many Products, Few Technologies

In 2020, Dr. Mike Fidanza, Dr. Stan Kostka, and Dr. Cale Bigelow published a review paper where they investigated wetting agent labels on the market as of 2019 and categorized them based on their composition (Fidanza et al., 2020). Of the 192 products identified, 32 products (17%) did not disclose the label’s active ingredient. Most products (112/192) listed block copolymers or block copolymer blends with other nonionic surfactants. So why do so many contain the same type of active ingredients?
  • Block copolymers work very well.
  • Few companies are willing to research, develop, and launch new surfactant molecules. Instead, the industry has relied on marketing to differentiate and position products.
  • Although wetting agents are developed for the turf market, they are still part of the larger agrochemical supply chain. A new molecule initially is not listed under the EPA’s 40 CFR, limiting its use to turf applications. It cannot be applied in food cropping systems.
  • It is cost beneficial to focus research and innovation on products that work across the two different markets. In this situation, Agriculture usually gets more attention due to its larger sheer scale.

Why Are Labels So Confusing?

Wetting agents are regulated at the state level. They are often classified as “soil amendments,” falling into the same category as peat, calcined clay, and other materials used to change soil physical properties.

A total of 37/50 states regulate soil amendments, and a handful of those states do not consider wetting agents to be soil amendments. Of the states that require wetting agents to be registered, the requirements vary broadly. Some states (for example, California) require regional data to back up all label claims. Other states have very specific requirements for how active ingredients are listed or require the submission of the analytical methods to validate the composition of the product.

What does this all mean? To launch a wetting agent, a company must balance each state’s unique requirements to fit all data together like a jigsaw puzzle into one label (or sometimes multiple labels).

Testing for the effectiveness of wetting agents on a turf field
While state-specific guidelines produce unique challenges for manufacturers, they should also create a level of confidence for golf course superintendents. For example, if a product is only used in Nevada, where wetting agents are not regulated, there is no requirement to back label claims with data. However, suppose that product is registered in California, Oklahoma, and North Carolina. In that case, a superintendent in Nevada can be reasonably confident that the label claims were backed by credible research data and evaluated by the state regulatory body.

In conclusion, suppose a product is registered across the USA (and doesn’t have 37 different labels). In that case, the superintendent can be confident that the active ingredients were reviewed and listed according to several state regulatory bodies’ requirements.

"Penetrants and Retainers"

Despite the relatively small range of active ingredients that we see in the market, superintendents face many product names and product claims. How can a superintendent trust that the product does what the label claims?

One benefit of the state-by-state regulatory process is that it effectively serves as a review panel to protect the end-user. Assume a product is registered across the entire USA. In that case, a superintendent can be confident that the label claims were submitted with efficacy data and reviewed independently by scientists from each state with data requirements.

Regulatory requirements aside, what to do with the broad array of product claims and descriptions of products in the marketplace?

  • What is a “penetrant” vs. a “retainer?”
  • Can wetting agents “place” water at certain depths in the soil profile?
  • Can some wetting agents “hold water” while others “push water?”

If you would like to know more about any product statements, ask to see the data. If data do not back the claim, you can at least proceed with that understanding and appropriately set your expectations.

The long answer is that we need more unified guidelines for wetting agent product claims as an industry. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has published standard terminology for adjuvants (ASTM E1519-16) and pesticides (ASTM E609-19). However, no such standards exist for wetting agents (or soil surfactants, soil wetters, retainers, penetrants, holders, pushers, flushers – you get the point!).

Exacto is currently working with ASTM’s D18 Committee on Soil and Rock to develop terminology and standards for wetting agent categorization and claims. We look forward to working with product manufacturers, researchers, and end-users to establish terms and standards that will be beneficial for everybody involved. We are looking for public feedback and would welcome all comments!

If you have any feedback or would like to learn more about wetting agents, please feel free to contact me at via email.

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