According to the research, undertaken by University of Pittsburgh researchers, this is the first illustration of how a large mixture of pesticides can adversely affect the environment.
As part of the research, study author Rick Relyea, an associate professor of biological sciences in Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences, exposed gray tree frog and leopard frog tadpoles to small amounts of the 10 pesticides that are widely used throughout the world.
Relyea selected five insecticides - carbaryl, chlorpyrifos, diazinon, endosulfan, and malathion-and five herbicides - acetochlor, atrazine, glyphosate, metolachlor, and 2,4-D.
He administered the following doses: each of the pesticides alone, the insecticides combined, a mix of the five herbicides, or all 10 of the poisons.
Relyea found that a mixture of all 10 chemicals killed 99 percent of leopard frog tadpoles as did the insecticide-only mixture; the herbicide mixture had no effect on the tadpoles.
While leopard frogs perished, gray tree frogs did not succumb to the poisons and instead flourished in the absence of leopard frog competitors.
Relyea also discovered that endosulfan, a neurotoxin banned in several nations but still used extensively in U.S. agriculture, is inordinately deadly to leopard frog tadpoles.
By itself, the chemical caused 84 percent of the leopard frogs to die.
His results showed that endosulfan was not only highly toxic to leopard frogs, but also that it served as the linchpin of the pesticide mixture that eliminated the bulk of leopard frog tadpoles.
"Endosulfan appears to be about 1,000-times more lethal to amphibians than other pesticides that we have examined," Relyea said.
"Unfortunately, pesticide regulations do not require amphibian testing, so very little is known about endosulfan's impact on amphibians, despite being sprayed in the environment for more than five decades," he added.
For most of the pesticides, the concentration Relyea administered (2 to 16 parts per billion) was far below the human-lifetime-exposure levels set by the EPA and also fell short of the maximum concentrations detected in natural bodies of water.
But the research suggests that these low concentrations, which can travel easily by water and, particularly, wind-can combine into one toxic mixture.
According to Relyea, declining amphibian populations have been recorded in pristine areas far downwind from areas of active pesticide use, and the 'chemical cocktail' could be a culprit.