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Towns Sue Atrazine Manufacturer for Drinking Water Contamination

(Beyond Pesticides, April 20, 2010) Communities from six states filed a lawsuit last month in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois against Swiss chemical giant Syngenta AG and its American counterpart Syngenta Crop Protection, Inc., the makers of Atrazine. The 16 municipalities in the states of Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, and Iowa want Syngenta to pay for the expensive carbon filters needed to remove atrazine from their drinking water supply. The United States’ largest private water utility, American Water Company, has also joined the suit, representing 28 additional communities.

Atrazine is used to control broad leaf weeds and annual grasses in crops, golf courses, and even residential lawns. It is used extensively for broad leaf weed control in corn. The herbicide does not cling to soil particles, but washes into surface water or leaches into groundwater, and then finds its way into municipal drinking water. It has been linked to a myriad of health problems in humans including disruption of hormone activity, birth defects, and cancer.

Atrazine is also a major threat to wildlife. It harms the immune, hormone, and reproductive systems of aquatic animals. Fish and amphibians exposed to atrazine can exhibit hermaphrodism. Male frogs exposed to atrazine concentrations within federal standards can become so completely female that they can mate and lay viable eggs.

A carbon filter with granular activated carbon (similar to a Brita filter) is needed to remove any significant amount of atrazine from the water supply. Unfortunately this technology is much more expensive and shorter lived than the rapid sand filters used by many utilities in the Corn Belt. Rapid sand filters can last 20 to 30 years but do not remove organic pollutants such as pharmaceuticals and certain pesticides, such as atrazine.

Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech University estimates that implementing granular activated carbon filtration could more than double the total cost of drinking water treatment in some rural communities. Kirk Leifheit, Assistant Chair of the Drinking Water Program at the Ohio EPA said “most water systems don’t have the resources to buy a new filter,” adding that implementing this technology would add up to billions of dollars.

The European Union banned atrazine in 2004, after repeated testing found the herbicide in drinking water supplies, and health officials were unable to find sufficient evidence the chemical is safe. In much of Europe the burden of proof falls on the pesticide manufacturer to prove it is safe, unlike in the U.S. where EPA has assumed the burden of proving a pesticide does not meet acceptable risk standards before taking regulatory action.

EPA is currently reviewing the approval of atrazine; it was last renewed in 2006. According to records obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Bush administration officials met privately with Syngenta executives 50 times, before EPA renewed Atrazine, and the EPA was heavily influenced by research conducted by Syngenta.

Despite mounting research, Syngenta refuses to acknowledge the dangers of atrazine. According to their website, “Syngenta is convinced of the safety of atrazine,” and “The U.S. litigation has no merit and should be dismissed.”

Source: Chicago Tribune


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