EPA Focuses on Atrazine Risks


Once again, the Environmental Protection Agency will conduct a study on the health risks of the weed killer atrazine. Atrazine is an herbicide used on golf courses, corn fields, and yards across America. It is also one of the most common contaminants in our drinking water. Though recent studies have tied atrazine to cancer, premature birth, and other problems, the EPA has resisted calls to ban the chemical.

The EPA’s new stance is a marked departure from that of the Bush administration, which stated atrazine posed no risk to humans or the environment. However, even though Lisa P. Jackson took over the EPS last January, some on the staff were arguing as recently as this summer that atrazine regulations were good enough.

Change in Science

So why the sudden change? One obvious answer is politics. With an administration that has a friendlier approach to the environment, the EPA’s leaders are going to look at some of the decisions made over the last eight years and try to change them. However, atrazine has been around for longer than the Bush administration was in power. This goes back much further than that and transcends political allegiances. Stephen A. Owens, EPA assistant administrator, said, “We have a question: Did the decisions made in previous administrations use all the evidence?” In fact, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the EPA in 2003 claiming regulators ignored studies that showed the herbicide was dangerous to animals.

Why ignore science? Money and power? Maybe. Atrazine is manufactured by several companies, but the largest is Switzerland’s Syngenta. A spokesperson from that company touts the usual company line that they stand behind their product and that it has undergone extensive testing. She says they are a “science-based company,” as if simply stating this makes them neutral and not prone to fudge the truth. Syngenta is a corporation that manufactures herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. But the bottom line isn’t about what’s best for people and the environment. It’s about what’s best for their shareholders. Cynical, perhaps, but accurate nonetheless.

Studies and investigations into atrazine have gone on for some time. A small amount in drinking water has been found to cause birth defects, such as skull and facial malformations, misshapen limbs, premature births and low birth weight. This small amount was also okayed as a federal standard. In addition, the EPA’s own studies have shown atrazine concentrations increasing in some communities for several days and up to a month at a time. Though the EPA and Syngenta were aware of these spikes, they did nothing to warn the local water system operators.

Due to the publicity of the risk of this chemical in the drinking water, water systems in six states have sued manufacturers to force them to pay to remove it. The states are: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, and Ohio. After the EPA’s latest report that comes out today, it is possible more states will follow.