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Industry Responds to Agency, Environmentalists on Atrazine Review

(Beyond Pesticides, July 15, 2010) Swiss chemical manufacturing giant Syngenta, one of the makers of the commonly used and heavily scrutinized pesticides atrazine, are speaking out against anti-pesticide activists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) review of atrazine. Despite mounting peer-reviewed scientific literature and research, Syngenta refuses to acknowledge the dangers of atrazine and, according to Legal Newsline, claims that the review is “redundant,” and merely “an unprecedented war on agriculture by anti-pesticide activists.” The company, which made over $11 billion in sales in 2009 even accuses the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has spearheaded a campaign to persuade EPA to initiate reviews, of being “slick” and “well-funded.”

Other critics of the agency’s decision include the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a group that has in the past received funding from Monsanto and Union Carbide (according to the group Center for Science in the Public Interest, ACSH stopped disclosing corporate donors in the early 1990’s). Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical director of ACSH told Legal Newswire that they believe EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson to be “cooperating with, if not spearheading, a broad-based activist agenda.”

An article by The Huffington Post Investigative Fund published last week, however, found that EPA relies heavily on industry-backed studies. Companies, such as Syngenta, that have a heavy financial interest in atrazine have paid for thousands of studies that are used by federal regulators to assess health risks. More than 80 percent of these studies have never been published or subjected to independent, scientific peer review. Jennifer Sass, Ph.D., a senior scientist at NRDC, explained to the Investigative Fund that relying on a company to test for the safety of its own product is an inherent conflict of interest, and is a part of the larger pattern at EPA.

Earlier this year family farm groups across the Midwest urged EPA to reject industry-funded studies in the review process. The groups, lead by Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project (LSP) and Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), say that the studies Syngenta submitted to EPA in the past have been deeply flawed, hindering good decision-making. They argue that publicly-funded and peer-reviewed science should be given primary consideration.

The NRDC report published last summer found that current EPA regulation of atrazine in water is inadequate. As a result of this report and numerous other bodies of scientific evidence of the hazards of atrazine, EPA announced that it would launch a new comprehensive evaluation of the pesticide atrazine to determine its effects on humans. In a statement to Legal Newsline, EPA said that, “Given the sizeable body of new scientific information as well as the documented presence of atrazine in both drinking water sources and other bodies of water, the agency determined it appropriate to consider the new research, including inviting independent scientific peer review, to ensure that our regulatory decisions on atrazine are protective of public health and the environment.”

In addition to the ongoing re-review of atrazine by EPA, 16 communities from six states filed a lawsuit in March in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois against 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, 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.

In 2007, Indiana researchers reported in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery that in their state, where rates of such birth defects are also very high, atrazine levels were significantly linked with the rate of gastroschisis and other defects. Another study, published last year in Acta Paediatrica, found similar results for the general rate of birth defects in the U.S. population; it found that atrazine upped the risk of nine birth defects in babies born to mothers who conceived between April and July, when surface water levels of the pesticide are highest. Another study also found that atrazine triggers the release of stress hormones leading researchers to believe that this may explain how the popular weed killer produces some of its harmful reproductive effects.

As the most commonly detected pesticide in rivers, streams and wells, an estimated 76.4 million pounds of atrazine is applied in the U.S. annually. It has a tendency to persist in soils and move with water, making it a common water contaminant. Research found that intersex frogs are more common in suburban areas than agricultural areas. Another study suggests it as a possible cause for male infertility.

Atrazine is 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.

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.

For more information on the chemical atrazine, please see our atrazine fact sheet on our pesticide gateway. Beyond Pesticides is working to halt the senseless use and exposure to lawn pesticides and herbicides, such as atrazine, that are so pervasively used in the U.S. Avoid using these pesticides by following organic and least-toxic management strategies for your lawn and gardens, such as composting, rain gardens, habitat protection, and natural predators. For more ideas, look at our Lawns and Landscape Page and our Invasive Weed Management Page.


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