EPA Launches Investigation into Commonly Used Pesticide

EPA will evaluate a popular farm chemical after atrazine in water was detected at dangerous levels in some states.

October 15, 2009

The haze of bad judgement is lifting in the EPA--the agency is finally investigating the dangers of atrazine.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is launching an evaluation of a pesticide widely used in the farming industry that has been detected in dangerous levels in drinking water. The announcement comes weeks after Natural Resources Defense Council issued an atrazine in water report that claimed the EPA was ignoring dangerous spikes in levels of the pesticide in drinking water after farmers applied it and after heavy rainstorms.


"This is great news. It is a beginning, but we have a long way to go to regain our environmental health," says Warren Porter, PhD, professor of zoology and environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "What is helping a lot is that more and more people are awakening and taking action, like changing their buying habits and supporting elected officials who have the courage to make changes, which is what this country is all about."

THE DETAILS: The EPA will be taking a closer look at atrazine and determining its effects on humans over the next year. Millions of tons of the chemical, which is banned in the European Union, are sprayed onto U.S. corn and sugarcane crops annually. Sometimes it's applied before and after seasonal planting to kill weeds. During the evaluation, the EPA will ask a Scientific Advisory Panel for advice regarding atrazine and its potential for causing cancer and other possible health ailments, such as premature birth, low birth weight, and birth defects. "One of Administrator [Lisa] Jackson’s top priorities is to improve the way EPA manages and assesses the risk of chemicals, including pesticides, and as part of that effort, we are taking a hard look at the decision made by the previous administration on atrazine," says Steve Owens, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. "Our examination of atrazine will be based on transparency and sound science, including independent scientific peer review, and will help determine whether a change in EPA’s regulatory position on this pesticide is appropriate."

Part of this effort will involve including the latest research on the topic. A growing body of studies find that atrazine has an estrogenic effect on animals, making some, such as frogs, turn into hermaphrodites. The EPA's investigation will consider results from the National Cancer Institute's Agricultural Health Study, slated for publication in 2010. Based on the panel's advice and new scientific findings, EPA could put new restrictions on using the chemical.

WHAT IT MEANS: While science is busy confirming the effects of atrazine in water, don't let yourself be a guinea pig. The hormone altering effects of this chemical are well established, and could possibly be contributing to skyrocketing cases of endocrine diseases like diabetes. If you live near farmland, there are relatively inexpensive NSF-certified water filters that remove most of this substance from your water (contamination is worst in the Midwest because of the high concentration of chemical farming practices there). Purchasing food that's USDA-certified organic, or is grown by local farmers who use only organic methods, lets you vote with your dollars for food that's produced without toxic agrichemicals like atrazine.