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In Reversal of Bush Policy, EPA Launches New Study of Atrazine’s Health Effects

Danielle Ivory

(Photo by Harry Hanbury)

The Environmental Protection Agency today reversed its stance on the
potential hazards of atrazine, one of the most commonly-used herbicides
in the country, saying it will re-examine how the chemical affects
human health.

EPA officials said in a statement that the agency will take a close
look at the weed-killer’s potential to cause cancer, as well as birth
defects, low birth weight, and premature births. Agency scientists also
will conduct research for the first time examining whether atrazine
interferes with the hormone and reproductive systems of humans and

The announcement marks a departure from the agency’s policies on
atrazine during the Bush administration, when officials said that the
concentrations of the herbicide measured in drinking water did not
endanger public health. As recently as June, Steve Bradbury, deputy
office director of the EPA’s office of Pesticide Programs, told the  Huffington Post Investigative Fund “we have concluded that atrazine does not cause adverse effects to humans or the environment.”

Today, EPA spokesman Dale Kemery told the Investigative Fund, “This
administration is taking a hard look at the atrazine decision made by
the previous administration.”

As the Investigative Fund  reported in a  series of  articles
in August, the EPA failed to notify the public about data it had
collected showing that atrazine has been found at levels above the
federal safety limit in drinking water in at least four states. After
the Investigative Fund analyzed and published the data, the EPA posted
its data online and said it would continue to update it.

Atrazine, manufactured by the Swiss firm Syngenta, is primarily
sprayed on cornfields and other major crops. The European Union has
banned the use of atrazine, saying there was not enough information to
prove its safety, and the EPA has long fielded criticism from
environmental activists for allowing the chemical to remain on the

The EPA’s announcement of its new atrazine study follows a private
September meeting between the EPA's senior staff and the Senate
Environmental and Public Works Committee, led by Sen. Barbara Boxer
(D-Calif.) According to a senior staffer on the committee, Boxer’s team
encouraged the EPA to open a new analysis of the risks of atrazine and
to keep the public informed about the levels of the weed-killer in
drinking water.

The committee plans to hold a hearing on atrazine and the EPA later this year, the staff member said.

The EPA said it will announce its specific plan for evaluating the
effects of atrazine next month, and that the study would conclude in
September 2010. Officials said the report also will include results
from a National Cancer Institute Agricultural Health Study due next

“I think it is important for the EPA to evaluate the effects of
atrazine on humans and I am very pleased to see that they are
emphasizing transparency in this evaluation process,” said Jason Rohr,
a specialist in ecotoxicology at the University of South Florida who
served on the EPA’s atrazine panel this past spring. “Given atrazine's
consistent effects on freshwater vertebrates, it would not surprise me
if a weight-of-evidence approach also revealed consistent effects on

In September, Rohr and colleagues published  an article
in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives examining more than
100 scientific studies of the weed-killer. They concluded that the
chemical affected the developmental, behavioral, immune, hormone, and
reproductive systems of aquatic animals.

That contrasted with an EPA statement in July, when the agency updated its Web site
to say: “atrazine does not adversely affect amphibian gonadal
development… and EPA believes that no additional testing is warranted
to address this issue.”

“At the very least,” Rohr said, “the public should be notified when
atrazine levels in their drinking water exceed the maximum contaminant
level set by the EPA.”

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