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It’s Time the EPA Banned Atrazine

January 21, 2010

Earlier this month, the Pioneer Press ran a story about a coalition of Minnesota family-farm advocacy groups that is urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to commit to a careful and transparent review of atrazine, the ubiquitous herbicide. The last time the EPA studied the product, in 2003, the review process was brief and mysterious—essentially a series of closed-door meetings between the agency and representatives from atrazine’s largest manufacturer, Syngenta. After a dozen such meetings, the EPA approved the continued use of the herbicide.

In October of last year, the EPA announced that it would reassess the safety of atrazine. The family-farm coalition requested greater transparency during this review process. In a letter to the EPA, members of the Land Stewardship Project and Pesticide Action Network of North America jointly called for all studies funded by Syngenta to be withdrawn from the evidence being examined by the EPA, and that “all scientific studies supporting the continued registration of atrazine should be made available for public scrutiny or removed from consideration.” In an article appearing in Loon Commons, a blog by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, Brian DeVore notes, of the 2003 review process, “the EPA treated Syngenta like a valued customer—you know, the ‘customer is always right’ kind of customer.” Such behavior by a regulatory agency is troubling in the extreme.

The concern for many is that rampant use of the herbicide, particularly in the corn- and soybean-rich Midwest, has contributed to the contamination of surface and groundwater. Atrazine has been linked to endocrine disruption in humans and wildlife, even at levels deemed safe by the EPA’s 2003 report. Like the case against Bisphenol A (BPA), which is also considered to be an endocrine disruptor, atrazine exposure is thought to contribute to birth defects and sex-organ abnormalities in humans and amphibians, breast cancer in women, and early-onset puberty in girls. And, like BPA, atrazine use has been banned in the European Union since 2003 (and, ironically, in Syngenta’s home-country of Switzerland). The EPA expects to complete its evaluation by September of this year, at which point it will open its findings up to independent peer review, according to an update on the agency’s Web site, dated November 2009.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, recently completed its own review of atrazine’s health and environmental impacts. The multi-agency assessment found current regulation of atrazine to be adequate. It also identified 10 opportunities to “minimize atrazine impact.” This incongruity must surely have raised eyebrows among readers who dared to wonder why an agency would offer tips on decreasing levels of an organic compound the agency itself deems to be safe.

The MDA has opened the issue up to public comment. The Minnesota Project encourages readers, farmers, and all Minnesotans interested in bettering our personal and environmental health to write to the MDA to express our collective outrage with the use of this dangerous and destructive chemical. Letters can be emailed to Gregg Regimbal, and will be accepted through March 19, 2010.  The Minnesota Project will be submitting a letter to the MDA as well, and we welcome your insights. Feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comment thread of this post.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2010 7:28 pm

    I do think that a fair process is needed to assess concerns, but your following statement may discount the agencies’ mission and their broad representation – “This incongruity must surely have raised eyebrows among readers who dared to wonder why an agency would offer tips on decreasing levels of an organic compound the agency itself deems to be safe.” In regards to both urban and rural use of fertilizers, chemicals, manures, etc. I would hope that the agencies identify ways to ‘minimize the impact’ of all of our activities even if they are deemed safe. Your economic activities, as well as my activity generates impacts to the environment. Finding ways to make our impact less and still conduct economic activities must be within a ‘sustainability’ definition.

    • Ryan Stockwell permalink
      February 17, 2010 2:05 pm

      Good point Tim, and certainly the department of Ag has sought to reduce the use of numerous inputs to improve the overall efficiency and cost competitiveness of American agriculture. However, in this instance, there is an implied undertone in the messaging within a context of debate regarding the health impact of atrazine. Within that context, the department of ag would have to make an explicit comment that they are suggesting use reductions to reduce costs and inputs. Without that statement, it becomes fairly obvious they are trying to assuage popular concerns about health impacts, and in the process, are basically acknowleging some truthful basis for those concerns. This is true in spite of your point that all of our actions have environmental consequences, which may be true, but glosses over the fact that some actions have considerably more impact than others. And it is that reason we need to fully examine and address those actions with the most impact, rather than simply accept the fact that all actions have impact.

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