A commonly used herbicide called atrazine is a suspected carcinogen, but legal nonetheless.
The herbicide atrazine is in the news for multiple reasons these days, as Tom Philpott explains below. In addition to concerns that this widely used pesticide may cause cancer, evidence has recently surfaced showing that, for more than a decade, Syngenta has spent millions of dollars to pay scientists and journalists to deny and deflect the growing documentation of the human health dangers posed by atrazine. Plus, cancer is not the only concern with this chemical; a new report from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences names atrazine among a group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are “obesogens” — meaning they are suspected of contributing to the obesity epidemic now underway in this country. Here are links to these important stories:
Atrazine is the second most widely used pesticide in the United States. Farmers have been using it since its registration in 1958 to control weeds in fields of corn, grain sorghum and other crops, and it has pervasively contaminated our drinking water for years.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates pesticide use, has been operating under the assumption that atrazine (produced by Syngenta) is “not likely to be a human carcinogen.” But in 2009, the agency launched what it called a “comprehensive new evaluation of atrazine to determine its effects on humans.” As part of the process, it charged a panel made up of independent scientists and public health experts to “evaluate the pesticide’s potential cancer and non-cancer effects.”
In late 2011, the EPA released the minutes of the expert panel’s final meeting. Its conclusions were stark. The panel criticized the EPA for lumping all forms of cancer together in its atrazine assessment. It then gave 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. For other cancers — prostate, breast, liver, and esophageal and childhood cancers — the panel found that “there is inadequate evidence” to determine whether or not atrazine is a cause.
At another point in the minutes, the panel pointed to “strong” epidemiological evidence linking atrazine to thyroid cancer and “suggestive” evidence linking it to ovarian cancer. “Many on the panel believed that the epidemiology data failed to provide compelling evidence that atrazine is not carcinogenic,” the minutes stated.
To put the panel’s conclusion in plain English, the experts told the agency it had been understating the cancer risk posed by atrazine. That’s bad news for hundreds of thousands of people who live in the agriculture-intensive regions of the Midwest and the South. That’s because, as a 2010 analysis of U.S. Geological Survey data by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows, surface water and drinking water in these regions are “pervasively contaminated with atrazine.” What’s worse, levels often spike during times of year when farmers apply the chemical, exposing people to atrazine levels at or above the EPA’s accepted limit of 3 parts per billion.
When EPA announced its review of atrazine in 2009, its press release (EPA Begins New Scientific Evaluation of Atrazine) said:
“At the end of this process, the agency will decide whether to revise its current risk assessment of the pesticide and whether new restrictions are necessary to better protect public health.”
Now that the panel has completed its final meeting, what’s next for the EPA’s review of atrazine? Will the agency ban the chemical, which in addition to its carcinogenic potential is also strongly suspected of being an endocrine disruptor? Or will it declare a moratorium on its use, pending more research?
Apparently, the agency plans to do nothing at all, at least for the time being. I contacted the EPA press office to find out the next step in the process. A spokesperson would tell me only that the agency would not begin to consider changing atrazine’s actual regulatory status until 2013 — and could give me no timeline on how long that process would take. In the meantime, farmers will continue dumping 76 million pounds of it onto farmland annually, to the delight of Syngenta shareholders.