Photo: T.P. MartinsIf you want to understand all that is wrong with our government’s environmental safety priorities, you need only look at the sad story of the weed killer atrazine. Despite the fact that study after study has demonstrated its dangers, it remains one of the most commonly used herbicides in the U.S. — to the tune of 76 million pounds a year.
Atrazine is highly volatile — which means not only can it leach into groundwater through the fields, but it can become airborne and drift into waterways. Much of the Midwest’s water supply contains detectable levels of the stuff. I know a Midwesterner who will proudly declare — tongue firmly in cheek — “we Iowans drink atrazine for breakfast!”
Laughing aside, Atrazine is an endocrine disruptor that also appears to cause cancer. The European Union, concerned about its toxicity, banned the chemical in 2004. But here in the U.S. you’ll continue to find reports like this one in Brownfield, an industry trade magazine, that declares that atrazine “is still a viable option for producers to manage weed problems.”
Atrazine is manufactured by one of the most powerful agribiz companies in the world, Syngenta, which profits mightily from herbicide sales. In fact, as the Huffington Investigative Fund discovered, the EPA relied heavily on Syngenta-funded research to establish the safety of the herbicide. So it should come as no surprise that atrazine remains on the market and is embraced by large-scale corn growers across the country (estimates are that it’s applied to 75 percent of corn fields in the U.S.).
Of course, Sygenta maintains there is no risk to humans or wildlife from atrazine — the company even put out a video touting its benefits. Yet a pair of studies have just been released that even the EPA can’t ignore.
The first, appearing in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, is a review by a team of 22 international scientists examining a broad range of studies conducted in the laboratory and in the field that examines atrazine’s status as an endocrine disruptor in mammals, fish, and amphibians. Their analysis confirmed that atrazine is dangerous at levels the EPA considers “safe.” Dangerous how? Like this (via ScienceDaily):
… Atrazine exposure can change the expression of genes involved in hormone signaling, interfere with metamorphosis, inhibit key enzymes that control estrogen and androgen production, skew the sex ratio of wild and laboratory animals (toward female) and otherwise disrupt the normal reproductive development and functioning of males and females.
Oh, and it also suppresses immune function.
Perhaps animal studies don’t faze you. (I mean, who cares about hermaphroditic fish or frogs that switch sexes?) Well, maybe this study, published in Environmental Research, will. Researchers from Colorado State University and the Vermont Department of Health looked at women in farm towns in Illinois and Vermont. And they found that simply drinking a couple glasses a day of tap water with detectable but low levels of atrazine was enough to disrupt a woman’s menstrual cycle and her hormone levels. According to the article in Environmental Health News:
The women from Illinois farm towns were nearly five times more likely to report irregular periods than the Vermont women, and more than six times as likely to go more than six weeks between periods. In addition, the Illinois women had significantly lower levels of estrogen during an important part of the menstrual cycle.
Tap water in the Illinois communities had double the concentration of atrazine in the Vermont communities’ water. Nevertheless, the water in both states was far below the federal drinking water standard currently enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
And the more glasses of water the women drank, the more screwed up their hormones became.
All the usual caveats that accompany a single scientific study should apply. But as the first study I mentioned demonstrated, there is more than ample evidence that atrazine poses a serious health hazard. And this latest research suggests the danger of exposure at levels Americans — especially in the Midwest — ingest on a daily basis.
Now, the EPA is in the midst of a review of atrazine’s safety — and the reality of the chemical’s toxicity is leaking out. As Mother Jones noted, an independent panel convened by the agency to examine the herbicide’s cancer risk provided “a list of cancers for which there is ‘suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential’: ovarian cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, hairy-cell leukemia, and thyroid cancer” — with the evidence for a connection to thyroid cancer singled out as “strong.”
Despite that evidence, however, the panel’s final statement was the milquetoast recommendation that the EPA in essence alter its atrazine warning from “unlikely to be carcinogenic to humans” to “inadequate information to assess carcinogenic potential.” Um. Really? That’s progress? Because other than that linguistic alteration, the EPA plans no action any time soon (a fact that demonstrates the massive pressure they must be under from the chemical industry).
Damn Syngenta’s profits. There’s simply no excuse for the continued use of this chemical. Yes, it might make operations simpler for mega-corn farmers, but at what cost? After all, Europe may have plenty of problems, but failed corn harvests due to a seven-year-old atrazine ban isn’t one of them.
So, can someone explain to me why the needs of a single company and the convenience of a group of industrial farmers outweigh the health of millions — yes, millions — of Americans? Anyone?
Get Grist in your inbox