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US Congressman Renews Attempts to Ban Controversial Herbicide Atrazine

by Danielle Ivory

A member of Congress is seeking to ban one of the nation's most widely-used herbicides, which has turned up in drinking water in some states. Rep. Keith Ellison  (D-Minn.) is for the second time proposing legislation that would outlaw any use or trade of atrazine.

Atrazine is most commonly sprayed on cornfields, and can run off into rivers and streams that supply drinking water. As the Huffington Post Investigative Fund reported in a series of articles last fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency failed to warn the public that the weed-killer had been found at levels above federal safety limits in drinking water in at least four states. A coalition of Midwestern communities -- along with the nation's largest private water utility -- is suing atrazine's manufacturer, Syngenta, seeking to have it pay to filter the chemical from public water.

Steven Goldman, spokesman for Syngenta, did not comment specifically on the proposed bill or on the prospect of a nationwide ban.

"What we can say is that three government agencies in Rep. Ellison's home state of Minnesota determined in January of this year that 'atrazine regulations protect human health and the environment in Minnesota,'" he said.

The herbicide has long been controversial. The European Union in 2004 outlawed its use, citing insufficient information to prove its safety. In a reversal of Bush administration policy, the EPA announced last October that it would re-evaluate the risk of cancer or birth defects from exposure to the herbicide, as well as its potential to disrupt the hormone and reproductive systems of humans and amphibians.

The EPA's Scientific Advisory Panel is scheduled to meet next week to discuss the human health effects of atrazine in drinking water. 

"No one should ever have to worry if the water they drink is making them sick or preventing fertility," said Ellison said in his announcement. "Forty years of good, hard environmental work has not eliminated our need to be vigilant in removing toxins like atrazine from our waterways."

This is not the first time Ellison has tried to outlaw atrazine. He introduced legislation in 2007 seeking to bar the use, production, sale, or trade of any pesticide containing atrazine. It died in a health subcommittee in September 2008.

Impact on farming would be minimal, Ellison said, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that "an atrazine ban would result in crop losses of only 1.19 percent."

Syngenta's Goldsmith disagreed, citing figures from an 2003 EPA study. "The total negative impact on corn, sorghum and sugarcane growers in the US would exceed $2 billion if atrazine were not available," he said. 

"This is just one economic analysis, not a prediction. And note that this work is seven years old now," EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said. "Clearly we evaluate many scenarios on potential impacts to make sure we have robust info to support our decisions."

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