(Beyond Pesticides, May 15, 2013) Recent public outcry over atrazine contamination of drinking water supplies on Long Island has pressured pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide manufacturer Makhteshim Agan of North America (MANA) to restrict the sale, use, and distribution of the toxic chemical. The move has been lauded by environmental advocacy groups, including Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE).
“Atrazine is a dangerous chemical that poses an unacceptable risk to public health and the environment on Long Island,” said Adrienne Esposito, CCE Executive Director. “Removing this product from the shelves is an essential first step in protecting Long Island drinking water from unnecessary pesticide contamination. We are delighted by this news.”
Unfortunately, stores will continue to sell its atrazine inventory until MANA implements the anticipated restriction date of spring of 2014.
Atrazine is one of the most commonly used herbicides in the world and is used on most corn, sugarcane and sorghum acreage in the United States; and can also be used on golf courses and residential lawns. In the U.S. alone, 60-80 million pounds are used per year to stop pre- and post-emergent broadleaf and annual grassy weeds, and is generally applied in the spring.
The herbicide is a common contaminant of municipal drinking water because it does not cling to soil particles and washes easily with the rain into surface and ground water. In previous studies, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found atrazine in approximately 75 percent of stream waters and 40 percent of all groundwater samples from agricultural areas tested.
Atrazine has been linked to a myriad of health problems in humans, including disruption of hormone activity, low sperm quality, low birth weight, impaired immune system function and cancer. A 2009 study by Paul Winchester, MD, linked birth defects to time of conception, with the greatest impact on children conceived when concentrations of atrazine and other pesticides are highest in the local drinking water.
Studies show that atrazine harms the immune, hormone, and reproductive systems of aquatic animals. For example, a study of fish and amphibians exposed to atrazine exhibit hermaphrodism, creatures with both male and female sexual characteristics. Male frogs exposed to atrazine concentrations within federal standards can become so completely feminized that they can mate and lay viable eggs. Other research by Tyrone Hayes, Ph.D. and others demonstrates that exposure to doses of atrazine as small as 0.1 parts per billion, turns tadpoles into hermaphrodites. In yet another study, a mixture of small amounts of ten of the most commonly used pesticides, including atrazine, was found to kill 99 percent of leopard frog tadpoles.
“Results of studies over the past 20 years show that atrazine is the most frequently detected pesticide in agricultural streams and rivers nationwide, and particularly in the Corn Belt states,” according to Robert Gilliom, Chief of the National Water Quality Assessment Program’s (NAWQA) Pesticide National Synthesis Project. “Atrazine concentration data for Corn Belt streams and rivers show that 21-day average concentrations, similar to the exposure conditions studied by Dr. Tillitt, exceeded levels found to affect fish reproduction for most sites and years sampled.”
Despite this evidence, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) re-approved the use of atrazine in 2006, concluding that there was no evidence that atrazine was causing adverse impacts on the amphibians’ development, and initiated a new evaluation of its potential health effects after well-publicized reports and a New York Times investigative piece found EPA’s regulations of atrazine in water to be insufficient. Even at levels considered “safe” under EPA drinking water standards, atrazine is linked to endocrine-disrupting effects.
In March 2012, U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) reintroduced legislation to ban atrazine, HR 4318. “No one should ever have to worry if the water they drink is making them sick or affecting fertility,” said Rep. Ellison. “Germany and Italy banned atrazine use in 1991 and EU health officials banned its use in 2003. Yet, almost 10 years later the United States is still using it. We need to remove toxins like atrazine from our waterways.”
With over 50% of the population drawing its drinking water supply from groundwater, much of which is contaminated with pesticides like atrazine, local efforts to implement restrictions will continue to play an integral role in the protection of human health and the environment.
For more information on pesticides and water quality please visit Beyond Pesticides’ Threatened Waters page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.