Potentially Harmful Herbicide Faces Scrutiny

The public is invited to comment on a move to ban the use of the herbicide Atrazine, shown to cause defects in frogs, fish and mammals.

by Dani Yokhna
Corn field with silo in background
Photo by Rachael Brugger
The herbicide Atrazine is commonly used on American corn crops.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently seeking public comments regarding a potential ban on Atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States. The chemical, produced by Swiss agrochemical company Syngenta, has been banned in the European Union since 2004, but 80 million pounds of it are applied to U.S. farms and lawns each year.

Atrazine, the most commonly detected herbicide in American groundwater, is used primarily on corn, sugar cane, rice, sorghum, golf courses and lawns. The EPA’s call for comments was prompted by more than 60,000 petition signatures and emails received from supporters of the nonprofit groups Save The Frogs, Center for Biological Diversity and Natural Resources Defense Council. Comments will be accepted through Nov. 14, 2011. (Find information about how to comment from the Federal Register.)

Atrazine is a potent endocrine disruptor that, at concentrations as low as 2.5 parts per billion, has been shown to cause immunosuppression, hermaphroditism and even complete sex reversal in male frogs.  The herbicide has been linked to reproductive defects in fish and prostate and breast cancer in laboratory rodents, and epidemiological studies suggest it is carcinogenic to humans. Atrazine is extremely persistent in the environment. It is still detectable in France 15 years after its last usage there. More than half a million pounds of Atrazine return to the Earth each year in rain and snow after it is caught in the airstream following spraying.

Atrazine has been under serious scrutiny over the past several years as an abundance of scientific literature on its harmful effects have been published by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of South Florida. More recently, during the international Save the Frogs Day on April 29, 2011, activists gathered at the steps of the EPA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of the disappearance of amphibians and call for a federal ban on Atrazine.

“Atrazine is the 21st century’s DDT” says Kerry Kriger, PhD, founder and executive director of Save the Frogs, America’s first and only public charity dedicated to protecting amphibians. Kriger led the Save the Frogs Day rally and hand-delivered 10,012 petition signatures to the EPA’s Herbicide Division the following week.

“Now that we have the EPA’s attention, we are a large step closer towards protecting our food supply, our drinking water and our wildlife from this known endocrine-disruptor,” Kriger says.

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This issue arises in the wake of a partnership launched in August between the EPA and the USDA to protect Americans’ health by improving rural drinking water and wastewater systems.

Under the partnership, the EPA and USDA will work together to promote jobs by targeting specific audiences, providing training for new water careers and coordinating outreach efforts that will bring greater public visibility to the workforce needs of the industry, and develop a new generation of trained water professionals. EPA and USDA will also facilitate the exchange of successful recruitment and training strategies among stakeholders, including states and water industries.

The agencies will also help rural utilities improve current operations and encourage development of long-term water-quality-improvement plans. The plans will include developing sustainable management practices to cut costs and improve performance. 

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