EPA to review health risk from popular weed killer

October 7, 2009 10:57:09 AM PDT
The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that it will re-evaluate the health effects of a popular weed killer that has been found in drinking water supplies. The EPA will take another look at the science on atrazine, a herbicide commonly used on corn and other crops, and decide whether further restrictions are needed to protect human health. Research has shown that runoff after rain storms can wash the chemical into streams and rivers, where it can enter drinking water supplies.

EPA monitoring of 150 drinking water systems in the Midwest, where the chemical is most heavily used, have not detected it at concentrations that would trigger health problems, including cancer. But new studies have shown that even at low levels atrazine in drinking water can cause low birth weights, birth defects and reproductive problems.

In 2003, under the Bush administration, the EPA allowed atrazine to continue to be used with few restrictions.

"We are taking a hard look at the decision made by the previous administration on atrazine," said Steve Owens, an assistant administrator, in a statement released Wednesday. "Our examination of atrazine will...help determine whether a change in EPA's regulatory position on this pesticide is appropriate."

Environmentalists said they hoped the new review would lead to the chemical being phased out.

"The hope is that they will decide at the end of the day that they should be regulating it more stringently, or they will just take if off the market," said Mae Wu, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the EPA in 2003 for failing to adequately evaluate atrazine's effects on endangered species.

More recently, operators of drinking water systems in six Midwestern states sued manufacturers, seeking reimbursement for the cost of removing the chemical from their water supplies.

The Swiss company Syngenta, the largest manufacturer of atrazine, said Wednesday it stands behind the herbicide's safety.

"There's probably not another herbicide on the market that has undergone as much as evaluation as atrazine has," said Sherry Ford, a spokeswoman for the company, which introduced atrazine in 1958. "For 50 years, through 10 administrations, and all the EPA administrators since the agency's founding, sound science has governed regulatory decisions on atrazine."

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