(Beyond Pesticides, April 2, 2010) On Monday, Tyrone Hayes PhD, researcher and professor at University of California Berkley gave a speech at Illinois State University urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban atrazine completely. Though atrazine has been the go to broad leaf weed killer for America’s corn growers since the 1950’s, evidence continues to build that atrazine is an unacceptable danger to humans and wildlife, and controversy continues as spring planting looms. In response to mounting scientific research, EPA announced last October it would review atrazine’s registration status, and last month announced plans to overhaul drinking water regulations regarding atrazine and numerous other chemicals known to harm human health.
Dr. Hayes is one of the preeminent researchers on the effects of atrazine on amphibians. He compares the current loss of amphibians to the bird die-offs in the 1960’s due to DDT. The Journal Star who covered the event called the atrazine issue “one of the most contested environmental debates since PCBs were banned in the 1970s.” The debate has pitted concerned farmers, environmentalists, and human health advocates against conventional corn growers and atrazine manufacturer Syngenta.
Syngenta, the Swiss chemical giant, is also facing litigation from several municipalities hoping to recoup the cost of reducing atrazine concentrations in drinking water. Syngenta has maintained that the herbicide is safe, calling the EPA review a waste of taxpayer money, and the litigation without merit. Ironically, Syngenta a former funder of Hayes’s research on atrazine’s effects on amphibians, is now seeking to discredit his findings.
Despite being banned in Europe, atrazine is used more than any other herbicide in U.S. corn production. Fifty percent of corn in the country is treated with atrazine, and in Illinois the herbicide is used on 80% of corn. Rob Elliot, an Illinois grower of corn and soy, calls it “a staple of crop protection.”
According to Dr. Hayes, 70% of Americans are exposed to atrazine daily. Atrazine can volatilize and travel up to 600 miles from the spray site where it can return to earth in rain water. It is commonly sprayed in Spring when heavy rains carry large amounts into nearby rivers and streams. Atrazine exposure can increase cancer risk in children, trigger the release of stress hormones, and cause certain birth defects. A developing fetus exposed to atrazine can be at greater risk for developing cancer later in life.
Atrazine is also persistent in the environment: “Our grandchildren will be exposed to atrazine being applied right now,” Dr. Hayes said in his speech. Male frogs exposed to atrazine can become female and even mate and lay viable eggs. Currently, EPA considers atrazine concentrations of 3 parts per billion acceptable, but 1 part per billion is enough to chemically castrate male frogs. A New York Times investigation found that atrazine concentrations in some municipalities can spike in the summer time to concentrations as high as 30 parts per billion, yet reports by the municipalities show they were unaware of large changes in concentration.
In response to rising concern about pollutants such as atrazine in U.S. drinking water, EPA announced it would issue new regulations. EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson called the regulations, which are still being developed, “a new vision for providing clean, safe drinking water.” A New York Times investigation found more than 20% of water treatment systems in the country violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. The investigation also found more than half a million incidences where the Clean Water Act was violated, yet violators were rarely punished. The new regulations are intended to allow EPA to create stronger regulations and to move faster in correcting violations. Water systems will most likely be forced to adopt new technologies which would increase costs. EPA also intends to collect more state data, as there is currently no federal database of water tests by local systems. Currently, only 91 chemicals, out of 60,000 registered for use in the U.S., are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and no new chemicals have been added to the list since 2000.
However, some within EPA remain skeptical that the new regulations will have much effect. An agency regulator who was not authorized to speak to the media told the New York Times, “The real test will be to see how many new chemicals have been regulated six months from now.” EPA intends to consult with outside experts and other members of the general public to develop the new rules in the next six months.
Based on scientific evidence, Beyond Pesticides believes that there is no need to continue with the use of atrazine, especially with so many alternatives for pest management. For information on alternative solutions to using this toxic pesticide, see Beyond Pesticides’ Lawns and Landscapes and Organic Food pages. For further information on this issue, please see our Threatened Waters page.