Atrazine may kill more than weeds. It is popular as an herbicide in crops and on golf courses and lawns across the Midwest.
But, recent studies make it clear atrazine washes into water supplies and becomes among the most common contaminates in American reservoirs and other sources of drinking water. On August 23, a front-page report published by the New York Times reported that atrazine may be dangerous at much lower concentrations than previously thought. In fact, according to the Times, “Recent studies suggest that, even at concentrations meeting current federal standards, the chemical may be associated with birth defects, low birth weights, and menstrual problems.”
Cancer can develop long after exposure to atrazine, even if the exposure occurs before birth, according to research reported on August 23.
Environmental Protection Agency officials deny Americans are exposed to unsafe atrazine levels and assert that current regulations are adequate. But, there is grave doubt this is so. Scientists and health advocates from several sectors disagree. They contend recent studies offer enough evidence to require a re-examination of governmental standards. They assert that local water systems, like those serving Nebraska’s communities and its farms and ranches, should be monitored for atrazine more frequently in order to detect short-term increases and warn people when they occur.
To date, no caution has been issued to pregnant, or potentially pregnant, women about atrazine risks. Inexpensive home filtration systems can be used to remove excess atrazine levels. Syngenta, the company manufacturing most of the atrazine sold in the United States, has issued no warnings and denies there is a health risk.
The risks of atrazine are not widely known. Local water officials are often unaware of them, and the concern is growing.
Forty-three (43) water systems in six (6) states, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, and Ohio, recently sued Syngenta and other atrazine manufacturers to force them to pay costs associated with removing the chemical from drinking water supplies. They assert Clean Water Act violations.
EPA representatives and representatives of Syngenta assert current standards are based on an adequate number of studies. An EPA written statement said that its standards apply appropriate safety buffers in regulating atrazine. The EPA notes it continues to monitor emergent science. Specifically, “The exposure that the agency allows under its atrazine drinking water regulations is at least 300 to 1,000 times lower than the level where the agency saw health effects in the most sensitive animal species tested,” according to the statement. The agency denies new studies suggest a need to re-evaluate the current EPA standard.
But, not all federal officials agree with the EPA. Linda S. Birnbaum, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a division of Health & Human Services, said, “We don’t really know what these chemicals do to fetuses or pre-pubescent children.” She continued, “At a minimum, pregnant women should have access to accurate information about what’s in their drinking water.”
The atrazine controversy disclosed by recent press announcements is one of several attacks on the EPA, noting it is “often too slow in evaluating emergent risks, not caution enough, and too unwilling to warn the public when health concerns arise.” NY Times, 8/23/09.
A General Accounting Office report described the EPA system for assessing toxic chemicals as inadequate. Forty percent of the nation’s community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Act at least once in 2008, according to an analysis of EPA data. Dozens of chemicals have been detected at unsafe levels in drinking water.
Some EPA officials concede they are frustrated by limitations they face in scrutinizing chemicals like atrazine. The New York Times estimated that “33 million Americans have been exposed to atrazine through their taps.” The Times attributed this report to data from water systems nationwide.
Both the EPA’s personnel and its operative law came under criticism in the recent report. The Pew Charitable Trust’s Director of Food and Consumer Product Safety, Erik D. Olson, is a former EPA lawyer. He described the EPA as an agency “working with weak laws, basic research [that] is often seriously underfunded, and in some cases there’s institutional inertia against change.”
Atrazine is sold under a variety of names. The most common is aatrex. It is commonly used on corn, but is often found in yards, gardens, parks, and golf courses, too. Use of tap water during the growing season, particularly in corn belt states, simply carries with it an atrazine risk.
The EPA’s recently confirmed Assistant Administrator, Stephen A. Owens, responded to the concerns by saying, “Atrazine is obviously very controversial and in wide-spread use, and it’s one of a number of substances that we’ll be taking a hard look at.”
The EPA current position on Atrazine can be read here.
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