Atrazine: Chemicals, Clients & Closed Doors

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“Farmers like me are being put on the front line when it comes to the health risks of a chemical like atrazine,” says southwest Minnesota farmer Paul Sobocinski in a new report released Tuesday by LSP and Pesticide Action Network North America.

As the report illustrates, such front-liners like Sobocinski deserve the best information available on agrichemicals, particularly ones as controversial as the weed killer atrazine. But they aren’t always getting that information. That’s why it’s so important that the EPA doesn’t blow its current review of the herbicide by giving its primary manufacturer, Syngenta, most-favored-client status.

That’s what happened earlier this decade. The Syngenta Corporation & Atrazine: The Cost to the Land, People & Democracy documents how the EPA review process that led to atrazine’s U.S. re-approval a few years ago was marred by numerous closed-door meetings involving the Syngenta corporation and EPA officials. That review was also characterized by a lack of independent research and suppression of scientific studies that showed significant health and environmental problems associated with the herbicide.

An examination of how that review took place shows a troubling pattern emerging, one in which the EPA treated Syngenta like a valued customer—you know, the “customer is always right” kind of customer. When that kind of atmosphere exists, people who dare to point out that giving a favored client’s product a free pass may not be in the best interest of the public find themselves running afoul of powerful people in both government and business. We here in Minnesota know all too well what risks scientists take when they dare to cross the Big Boys—just ask Paul Wotzka and Tyrone Hayes.

In short, Syngenta’s bottom line took precedence over the public good during the last approval process. And oh what a bottom line. Since it first went on the market in the U.S. half-a-century ago, atrazine has become one of the most widely used herbicides in the country. An estimated 76.5 million pounds of atrazine are used in the U.S. each year, with 86 percent used on corn. The Syngenta corporation is the chemical’s primary manufacturer, its most aggressive defender/cheerleader and its number one financial beneficiary.

The corporation has a 35 percent market share in corn herbicides, is the global leader in selective herbicides and is number two in non-selective herbicides. Atrazine is one reason Syngenta’s net profits grew 75 percent in 2007, and another 40 percent in 2008.

Unfortunately, atrazine has a big presence in another important category: it is the most commonly detected pesticide in our state’s surface and groundwater. Atrazine contamination has been found from agricultural communities in southeast Minnesota to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

That’s a concern when one considers that there is an increasing body of science showing that exposure to the herbicide at even extremely low levels could pose significant health risks to humans and animals. As we noted in this blog a few weeks ago, recent research linking atrazine exposure and birth defects is particularly troubling.

The current EPA review of atrazine was launched in October and will continue until fall 2010. An EPA scientific panel will kick-off the first round of reviews Feb. 2-5; the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency were scheduled to release their own joint review of the herbicide last fall, but nothing has emerged as of yet (the EPA’s announcement of its own review may have thrown a monkey wrench into  Minnesota officials’ plans).

The new EPA review is a chance for the agency to use science in the public’s best interest and regain the trust of farmers and others who are on the front lines of agrichemical use.

One way to get it right is for government decision-makers, as well as the public, to ignore claims that atrazine is an irreplaceable corn production tool. As the LSP/PAN report shows, farmers right here in Minnesota are raising corn without the controversial herbicide, as are farmers in the European Union, where atrazine is banned. And Wisconsin remains a top corn producing state, despite some of the toughest atrazine restrictions in the nation. Farmers are too innovative to allow one production tool to limit their choices when it comes to raising a crop.

The LSP/PAN report does not call for an outright ban of atrazine or any other herbicide. Many LSP farmer-members use pesticides in their cropping operations. But that means they rely on the EPA to use a transparent process when registering pesticides, one that is guided by science and focuses on protection of human health and the environment, as well as production considerations.

In a Jan. 5 letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, LSP and PAN, along with 14 other farm and rural groups, call for an atrazine review that sets a standard for vetting the safety of agrichemicals. The EPA can do that by:

  • Ensuring 100 percent transparency. That means no closed-door meetings and making all studies that are considered part of the review open to scientific and public scrutiny.
  • Making sure critical data is not hidden from the public or from independent scientific examination under the guise of “it’s confidential business information.” Peer review is the gold standard for scientific publication and should be a critical element in re-examination of atrazine.
  • Studies funded by Syngenta should not dominate the review. As the LSP/PAN report documents, the corporation has engaged in undue influence on the atrazine registration process in the past. There is strong evidence that during the last review of atrazine the corporation hampered sound decision-making by submitting deeply-flawed studies that in some cases led EPA officials on wild goose chases.

That last point illustrates an important fact: because atrazine is such a major source of profit for Syngenta, the corporation has a major conflict of interest when it comes to this review. As Tyrone Hayes told me recently, “As long as we continue to do science, they are going to keep attacking that science.” By default, any research the corporation submits in this area must be taken with a huge grain of salt. (Speaking of salt, Hayes’ research showed that atrazine caused reproductive abnormalities in frogs at levels of 0.1 parts per billion—that’s equivalent to one, one thousandth of a grain of salt in a fish aquarium.)

The safety of rural Minnesota’s drinking water should not be sacrificed for the sake of one corporation’s profit margin. That’s why, if after review the science indicates atrazine is a threat to health and/or the environment, the EPA must take swift and clear action to protect farmers and the public.

The people that produce our food deserve at least that. So do the people who drink our water. They may not be multinational corporations, but they’re important clients just the same.

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