Atrazine’s Ace in the Hole

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How has atrazine, a weed killer so controversial that it can’t be used in the European Union and is verboten on 1.2 million acres of Wisconsin farmland, escaped stringent regulation in most of the U.S., including here in Minnesota?

Since it was first registered in 1958, atrazine has become one of the most widely used corn herbicides in the U.S. Its relatively low cost and ability to kill broadleaf weeds without harming corn plants have made it popular with Midwestern farmers for decades.

Unfortunately, atrazine is an overachiever in another way: it’s one of the most commonly detected pesticides in U.S. ground and surface water. A monitoring program conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency in 10 states between 2003 and 2005 found that 94 of 136 public water systems tested had atrazine concentrations above the three parts per billion federal standard in their untreated water for at least one 90-day period. Between 1998 and 2003, seven million people were exposed to atrazine in their treated drinking water above state or federal health-based limits.

At least 1.5 million pounds of atrazine are used in Minnesota annually, and our water shows it—tracking national trends, it is by far the most commonly detected pesticide in both ground and surface water here, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s 2007 Water Quality Monitoring Report. Or, as the MDA puts it: “Atrazine has been detected more frequently over more years than any other single compound.”

Because of its ability to be taken up into the atmosphere and travel hundreds of miles, atrazine has shown up in areas far from farm country, such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. In fact, atrazine was detected in nine out of 10 lakes sampled recently in Minnesota.

All that atrazine in all that water should be of major concern to us. As researchers like Tyrone Hayes and others have shown, even at doses far below the 3 ppb level the chemical may cause problems for amphibians, fish, even humans. Atrazine can be insidious: in October scientists reported a correlation between high amounts of atrazine in Minnesota ponds and wetlands, and high populations of a type of flatworm that infects frogs. The chemical may not kill the frogs outright, but it could be creating the right conditions for high mortality. It could also make it just plain hard to perpetuate a species: a study released in May showed male zebrafish exposed to atrazine for 48 hours at concentrations similar to what’s found in farm chemical runoff water were twice as likely to be feminized.

Some decision makers are taking notice. In Wisconsin, widespread contamination of private wells by atrazine prompted officials there to adopt the “Atrazine Rule” in 1991. The rule limits how atrazine can be used in Wisconsin and prohibits its use in areas where atrazine contamination is found in groundwater above the federal 3 ppb standard.

Wisconsin’s atrazine regulations, which now cover over a million acres, are considered some of the most stringent in the Midwest. Minnesota, on the other hand, has a program of “voluntary” use limitations when surface water or groundwater atrazine contamination exceeds a “level of concern.”

The European Union has declined to renew permitting of atrazine, in effect banning its use there. It turns out the primary manufacturer of atrazine, Syngenta, is based in Europe. How awkward.

Despite what’s happening in Wisconsin, for the most part in this country atrazine still has free rein. Why? This is where a very savvy lobbyist comes in handy. As the Washington Post described in a special report, a main reason the EPA has not restricted use of the herbicide is because a lobbyist named Jim J. Tozzi used something called the “Data Quality Act” to challenge the very basis of all those studies showing problems with atrazine.

The Data Quality Act, which was slipped into a 2000 omnibus spending bill without debate or comment, has been used primarily by industry to challenge the basis for imposing all types of regulations. Its success at styming atrazine restrictions is held up by industry as one of the law’s crowning achievements thus far. Why was Tozzi so good at wielding the law? He drafted the Data Quality Act himself. Talk about insider knowledge.

In closed meetings that excluded independent scientists and environmental groups, officials with Syngenta and the EPA eventually worked out an agreement to avoid tighter regulations of atrazine, according to the Post. Sound familiar?

In addition, CropLife, a lobbying group for chemical companies, recently pushed for an amendment to the 2008 Farm Bill that would have prevented conservation money from going to state programs that help farmers transition from atrazine to a less toxic herbicide. Such programs would have been considered “discriminatory” against atrazine, according to the proposed legislation. Taken to its extreme, federal conservation money would have been denied to programs that promote organic production systems, for example. The amendment eventually failed, but the fact that it got any traction in Congress at all is frightening, to say the least.

Surprised? Don’t be. Atrazine has a lot of powerful friends in private industry, as well as state and federal government. Consider what happened to (ex) Minnesota state employee Paul Wotzka when he spoke out about his own research showing all those “voluntary” atrazine reduction measures promoted by the MDA weren’t working so well. Tyrone Hayes has had his scientific integrity attacked, and was even dis-invited from giving a keynote at a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency conference after concerns were raised his presentation on atrazine research would offend MDA officials.

The shame of it is, there are many viable alternatives to atrazine. Syngenta claims it’s a one-of-a-kind chemical and that corn yields will plummet even if minimal restrictions are put in place. Really? Don’t tell that to European farmers, who are getting competitive yields without the herbicide. Or what about the farmers in this country who have switched to alternative weed killing systems or are using cover crops and other methods to replace pesticides completely? It’s getting harder to ignore the competitive yields they’re garnering even under difficult weather conditions.

Wasn’t DDT also one of those chemicals we “just couldn’t do without”? Weren’t we supposed to starve without it? Maybe that’s the problem: the chemical companies (and their allies in government) know that once they give up atrazine in this country and the agronomic world doesn’t come crashing down, their argument that the herbicide is irreplaceable will ring as false as a shopping mall Santa.

One Response to “Atrazine’s Ace in the Hole”

  1. John

    Hi there, I just wanted to post you a quick hello; I have just started a blog about Atrazine and found that you are also trying to get the message out there. I’d say you have even put it better than I did! Great post. I look forward to reading more of your posts. – John