(Beyond Pesticides, January 7, 2010) Family farm groups across the Midwest are calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prioritize independent science as the agency begins reviewing the health and environmental threats posed by the herbicide atrazine. In a letter sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on January 5, 2010, over a dozen groups maintain that only a completely transparent process that rejects biased research produced by the pesticide’s primary manufacturer, Syngenta, will result in a review that serves the interests of farmers, the general public and the environment.
“As farmers on the front line of chemical exposure, we need EPA to make science-based decisions in the interest of our health, our family’s health and the health of our community,” said Paul Sobocinski, a southwest Minnesota crop and livestock farmer and Land Stewardship Project member. “Unfortunately, EPA has a track record of allowing agrichemical companies like Syngenta to hijack the process with bad science.”
The letter to Ms. Jackson was accompanied by a new report, The Syngenta Corporation & Atrazine: The Cost to the Land, People & Democracy, jointly produced by the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project (LSP) and Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA). The report provides farmers with information about the health risks of atrazine, and documents Syngenta’s attempts to suppress science that shows it to be harmful. It also features real-world examples of farmers who are raising corn without the herbicide.
Since it first went on the U.S. market over 50 years ago, atrazine has become one of the most widely used corn herbicides in the country. An estimated 76.4 million pounds of atrazine are used in the U.S. each year, with 86 percent used on corn.
Over the years, atrazine has also become one of the most common pesticide contaminants in U.S. surface and groundwater. A monitoring program coordinated by the U.S. EPA in 10 states between 2003 and 2005 found that 94 of 136 public water systems tested had atrazine concentrations above levels that the U.S. government considers “safe.” Between 1998 and 2003, an estimated seven million people were exposed to atrazine in their treated drinking water at levels above state or federal health-based limits. The U.S. Geological Survey found atrazine present in streams in agricultural areas approximately 80 percent of the time, and in groundwater in agricultural areas around 40 percent of the time. In states like Minnesota, Syngenta’s atrazine is pervasive ”” from groundwater in agricultural communities to the pristine lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Scientists report that atrazine is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can interact with the hormone system and have negative health impacts at extremely low levels of exposure. Most farmers and other rural residents in the Midwest get their drinking water directly from private wells that tap into groundwater, making them particularly vulnerable to atrazine contamination.
In an April 2009 study, Indiana University School of Medicine professor of clinical pediatrics Paul Winchester, M.D. links birth defects to month of conception, with the highest rate of birth defects linked to the spring and summer months, when atrazine and other pesticide use increases and high concentrations are found in surface waters. (Dr. Winchester will be presenting this and other research at Greening the Community, the 28th National Pesticide Forum, April 9-10 in Cleveland OH. Registration details and more information are available on the Forum webpage.)
“For those of us in farm country, we have to have well water that is safe to drink,” said southeast Minnesota dairy farmer and LSP member Bonnie Haugen. “As a farmer I have the expectation that the EPA’s recommendations on pesticides will protect human and environmental health and be based on sound science, but there are indications that this may not be the case when it comes to atrazine. It is time to do a valid review so the EPA can regain our trust.”
In October 2009, EPA officially reopened an examination of atrazine, which had been previously reviewed and approved for continued use in 2003. The agency will spend the next year reviewing the health and environmental risks of the chemical.
“This is a chance for EPA to get it right and to use science in the public’s best interest,” said Dr. Tyrone Hayes, a biologist at University of California-Berkeley who studies the impacts of atrazine on amphibians. Concerns over atrazine’s safety have led to it being banned in the European Union.
The letter submitted to EPA asks that the current review of atrazine set a standard for decision-making in the interest of farmers and the public by taking the following actions:
”¢ The process should be 100 percent transparent. There should be no closed-door meetings of any kind, especially with industry representatives, and summaries of all interactions between U.S. EPA and stakeholders on this topic should be included in the official record (i.e. the docket) and made publicly available.
”¢ Studies funded by Syngenta should be discounted in the review process. Studies the corporation has submitted in the past have been deeply flawed and have hampered good decision-making. Publicly-funded and peer-reviewed science should be given primary consideration.
”¢ All scientific studies supporting the continued registration of atrazine should be made available for public scrutiny or removed from consideration. Syngenta and other atrazine registrants should not be permitted to hide critical data from independent scientific examination by claiming “confidential business information.” For the sake of transparency and to ensure farmer and farmworker confidence in its decisions, U.S. EPA should only rely on studies that are publicly available.
”¢ If after review the science indicates atrazine is a threat to human health or the environment, U.S. EPA should take swift and clear action to protect farmers and the general public.
“Syngenta has a track record of interfering with and undermining the scientific review process at EPA,” said Kathryn Gilje, Executive Director at PANNA. “This is simply wrong. It puts farmers and the public at risk, and we want to be sure it doesn’t happen this time around.”