Residents of Drexel, Missouri, got to taste the effects of corporate influence on chemical regulation firsthand last week when a spike in atrazine levels made their water undrinkable. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources told residents not to drink, cook with, or wash dishes with the local water after finding atrazine at ten times the "acceptable" exposure level set by U.S. EPA. Atrazine, a broadleaf triazine herbicide used primarily on corn, is the second most heavily used pesticide in the U.S. (after glyphosate—"Roundup"), and the most-frequently detected pesticide contaminant in ground and surface water. (Approximately 94% of U.S. drinking water samples tested recently contained atrazine, according to WhatsOnMyFood.org). The EPA estimates that 76.4 million pounds of atrazine are used in the United States every year. The chemical is currently under re-review by the agency. During the previous review in 2003, the chemical’s manufacturer, Syngenta, held over 50 private, closed-door meetings with regulators.
Drexel officials blame the spike on recent heavy rains in the Midwest, but a study released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) earlier this year found that the problem is systemic: “of the 153 water systems that were sampled between 2005 and 2008, 100 … had spikes of atrazine in their untreated water that exceeded [the federal standard] of 3 ppb. Two-thirds of these 100 systems had spikes of atrazine greater than 3 ppb in the treated water.” Drexel’s water was declared “safe” again last Friday — the state health department said it’s unlikely that the brief exposure will have any negative health effects, despite the fact that atrazine’s toxicity at extremely low levels has been well documented. NRDC’s Andrew Wetzler points to several studies that link atrazine with female sex characteristics in male frogs, impaired reproductive systems in fish, and low sperm count and motility in farmworkers exposed to the chemical. Prenatal exposure to atrazine may increase the risk of birth defects, and Syngenta recently revealed that it had been tracking cases of prostate cancer in workers involved in manufacturing the pesticide. The company admitted it found rates more than three times the regional average. In March, PAN delivered a petition to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees in support of Midwest farm organizations who have been urging transparency and independent public science in the current review.