If Iowa hadn't exercised good judgment and supported Barack Obama in the caucuses nearly two years ago, I wouldn't have awakened in my Des Moines hotel last week and felt as grateful as I did.
For on the front page of the Des Moines Register last Thursday was the announcement that should have been made years ago. The Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency is taking a U-turn and plans a yearlong investigation into the safety of the second most commonly used herbicide in the nation: atrazine.
While atrazine is sprayed on golf courses, roadsides and yards, its widest use is as a weed killer in agriculture, especially for cornfields. This is undoubtedly why the EPA has found elevated levels of atrazine in drinking water in corn-growing states like Iowa - and Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.
While Wisconsin is a corn-growing state, the state did not show such levels of atrazine in the drinking water. This is largely because almost two decades ago, Wisconsin lawmakers and regulators committed to regulate atrazine to protect groundwater. The state's maximum allowable application rates are half of the maximum federal rate, and the state imposes "atrazine prohibition areas" if the pesticide is found above certain levels in groundwater samples. The regulations were controversial at the time and remain so with some farmers, who have been forced to find alternative weed control methods.
For years, atrazine was understood to be a carcinogen, but more recent studies associate even very low levels of the herbicide with birth defects, low birth weight, and lower sperm counts in humans. It also has been found to cause hermaphroditism, or changes in sexual organs, among male amphibians. Syngenta, which manufactures the pesticide in the United States, conducted research intended to show that such amphibian sex changes were not linked to atrazine, and tried to suppress results when its own research validated these concerns.
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It took some pressure to get even the Obama administration to move on this issue. In August, the Natural Resources Defense Council published results of its Freedom of Information Act request findings. Between 2003 and 2008, the EPA tested drinking water in 150 places in the nation; although it found at least 10 occasions where the annual average levels of atrazine exceeded the allowable level of 3 parts per billion, it failed to notify citizens of the hazard. In several communities, atrazine levels spiked during the spring planting period to many times the level currently considered safe - the drinking water standard.
Because the drinking water standard of 3 parts per billion was originally based on cancer and other research, the standard does not protect against potential hormone effects found with very low levels of the herbicide (as low as 0.1 parts per billion in some cases). The call for a review of current research is justified.
No doubt it is scary for farmers to contemplate more restrictions on this ubiquitous herbicide, but it should be even scarier to contemplate the federal agency NOT investigating the issue. After all, farmers and their families drink the water. Aside from the effects on wildlife, ecosystems and other people's health, farmers need reliable research to guide their applications to protect the health of their own families and rural communities.
So it's not good news that atrazine may be far more hazardous than most farmers have thought for years. But it is very good news that the Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency has committed itself to letting facts, rather than political influence, inform what those hazards are and are not - for farmers and the rest of the nation.