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EPA Puts Pesticide Maker in Charge of Testing
(Beyond Pesticides, November 5, 2003)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced an unprecedented decision on Friday, October 31, to allow a pesticide manufacturer to test for its own levels of water contamination. In what EPA calls "an innovative protective approach," the monitoring for levels of atrazine in US waterways will be left to the chemical's largest manufacturer, Syngenta. The approach was developed by EPA, atrazine manufacturers, the US Department of Agriculture and grower groups. Environmentalists were excluded from the mix.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the new Syngenta monitoring program will start in March by looking at 20 waterways in 10 states: Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Minnesota, Tennessee and Louisiana. Erik Olson, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), observed that the plan requires "Syngenta to monitor 3% of the 1172 highest-risk watersheds, 20 to begin with, then 40 in 2005. Ninety-seven percent of the highest-risk watersheds will not be required to be monitored. It's insane."

EPA's action is alarming considering Syngenta's full disclosure of chemical toxicity has been called into question in the past. In August 2002, NRDC requested EPA investigate the company, asserting that Syngenta deliberately concealed evidence of health threats that atrazine poses to humans. They said Syngenta found cases of prostate cancer among workers at their Louisiana manufacturing plant in the mid 1990's, but did not report these findings until October 2001. According to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), pesticide registrants are required to report any adverse health effects to EPA. See the August 9, 2002 edition of Daily News for more information.

The hazards of atrazine are well researched and documented. Environmental Health Perspectives published a study in October 2002 which found that male Leopard Frogs dosed with > .1 part per billion (ppb) of atrazine in water developed dramatic female sexual characteristics, including retarded gonadal development (gonadal dysgenesis) and testicular oogenesis (hermaphroditism). Shockingly, many of the atrazine concentrations found were 30 times lower then federal safe drinking water standards. In addition, Joseph Kiesecker of Pennsylvania State University tested the role that pesticides, including atrazine, play in frog deformities. His findings suggest that pesticides severely weaken the immune system, making frogs much more susceptible to parasitic infection and deformities. Scientists emphasize the importance of these findings when the threat is translated to human health. For more information and photos of these deformities, see the July 20, 2003 edition of Photo Stories.

Effects of atrazine have also been linked directly to humans, such as the prostate cancer cases among workers at the atrazine manufacturing plant. Furthermore, University of Missouri-Columbia epidemiologists found male semen counts to be almost 50% lower in Missouri farm country where atrazine was used than in big cities, where it wasn't. This study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2002. However, both Syngenta and EPA discounted previous research on human health effects of atrazine, claiming that hundreds of other tests commissioned by the company show the results to be either unsound or inconclusive.

Research by independent scientists, such as the studies previously mentioned, show that monitoring water for levels of atrazine is extremely important. Detection of atrazine in water is already well documented. The U.S. Geological Survey found rates of atrazine from 10 to 100 times higher than the 3 ppb allowed by the EPA in drinking water, during spring time in the Corn Belt region of the U.S. Trace levels have even been found in water samples in the Arctic.

The long-term consequences of this plan could undermine the purpose of the Clean Water Act. EPA states their approach with Syngenta to monitor atrazine in waterways will serve as a model, which "may in turn be used to address similar concerns in other watersheds." The effects on waterways could be dire, since, as Olson states, "Instead of requiring a polluter to stop polluting, EPA is cutting a deal with the corporation to let them off the hook."