Atrazine, Syngenta's Confidential Data, EPA's Review, and the Five Stages of Grief

by Sandra Zellmer

January 13, 2010

My family has gotten a lot smaller lately. My mother died in 2004, my father in 2007, and my uncle in 2008.

I’ve done the five stages of grief, as introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, but not exactly as she described. It’s true that I initially felt denial: “I’m a lucky person; this can't be happening.” Then I was angry and felt sorry for myself. Then, at least during my mother’s struggle with pancreatic cancer, I hit the bargaining table. Mom was a Sunday school teacher when I was little, so I pleaded with God: “Please let the diagnosis be wrong, please let the chemo work, please don’t let the good die young.” To hedge my bets, I occasionally promised, “if she can beat the odds, I’ll volunteer at the local cancer center and I’ll donate my life savings to research.” It didn’t work. In less than four months, she was dead.

Depression crept in, and this stage held me in its grip for a long time. I gained acceptance a year or two after my mother’s death—she would’ve wanted me to—but this stage eluded me with the loss of my father and my uncle. Now, I’m just angry. Outraged, in fact.

My father had stomach cancer. My uncle had prostate cancer. Both were farmers.

I can remember when the two of them would come in from the fields covered with fine, white powder. The only part of their bodies that wasn’t white was the top of their heads when they took off their caps before sitting down to lunch. Dad said it was DDT, a pesticide that was banned in 1972 after Rachel Carson alerted the nation to its danger.

Today there are lots of other pesticides and genetically modified seeds to combat corn borers and other insects. As for weeds, the most popular herbicide, by far, was and still is atrazine, first registered for use in the United States in the late 1950s. I remember asking my father about it sometime after I went to college and started worrying about toxins in our air and drinking water. He shrugged off my concerns, convinced that atrazine had no effect on humans and dissipated from the environment rapidly anyway. I felt a continuing sense of unease, suspicious that he and my uncle were breathing it and all of us were drinking it every time we turned on the tap.

Studies show a link between atrazine and prostate cancer. At least one study of farm communities in Ontario, Canada, found higher rates of stomach cancer in areas with high levels of atrazine in the drinking water. If my sisters or I develop breast cancer, atrazine may be to blame. There seems to be little to no evidence that exposure to atrazine causes pancreatic cancer, but then again maybe it’s because no one has looked for it.

That may soon change. Last fall the U.S. EPA announced a review of atrazine’s federal registration (see August 2009 posts by Rena Steinzor and Holly Doremus). The announcement came on the heels of a report documenting widespread exposure throughout U.S. farm states, and a growing body of evidence of health effects even at low-exposure levels. (See the Pesticide Action Network's report, The Syngenta Corporation and Atrazine: The Cost to the Land, People and Democracy).

Atrazine is one of the most commonly detected herbicides in water. A government map of atrazine in the groundwater of agricultural states shows an alarming blotch of bright red throughout western Iowa, where I grew up, and eastern Nebraska, where I currently live. The red depicts the highest levels of atrazine detection in shallow groundwater (over 75%). An EPA monitoring program found that 94 of 136 public water systems tested between 2003 and 2005 had atrazine concentrations above the federal drinking water standard of three parts per billion.

Not to worry, says Syngenta, a major producer of atrazine. When a monitoring station on a stream near DeWitt, Nebraska, revealed atrazine levels in excess of federal standards, Syngenta’s toxicologist told the Lincoln Journal Star recently that residents had no cause for alarm because the stream "dries down to a trickle" during summer. Oblivious to the hydrology of much of the Midwest, where surface and groundwater are intimately related, Mr. Pastoor remarked, “This is not drinking water. This is just streams." Even if Mr. Pastoor had a better grasp on basic hydrology, I’m not convinced that the quality of water in our streams is unimportant.

Thankfully, the EPA is on the case. But the Iowa Farmers Union, along with the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project, the Pesticide Action Network of North America, and thirteen other organizations are worried that the scientific reports being studied may be distorted. These groups sent a letter to U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on Jan. 5. Their plea:

Syngenta and other atrazine registrants should not be permitted to hide critical data from independent scientific examination by claiming “confidential business information.” For the sake of transparency and to ensure farmer and farmworker confidence in its decisions, U.S. EPA should only rely on studies that are publicly available. 

These groups have reason to suspect the integrity of the data being used in the review, much of which is provided by Syngenta. A recent Government Accountability Office report found that the EPA’s process for assessing toxic chemicals was “broken” and that it underestimates human health risks.

As Holly Doremus noted in her Aug. 23 post, “manufacturers should bear the financial costs of testing their chemicals for adverse effects,” as required by current federal law. Doremus is also spot on when she says, “Regulators cannot rely on firms with a clear economic interest in the outcome as the primary source of information about the effects of their chemicals on people or the environment.” Yet reliance on the manufacturer’s own studies is commonplace.

In 2006, EPA found that atrazine posed some “risks of concern” from occupational exposure and from drinking water, especially in the Midwest. But the agency concluded that atrazine was unlikely to be a human carcinogen, clearing the way for re-registration—with no new restrictions—under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). This conclusion has been heavily criticized, including by EPA’s own Science Advisory Panel.

While the last round of EPA studies was ongoing, the European Union banned atrazine. Do they know something that we don’t?

President Obama acknowledged that the United States is falling behind other nations in scientific research. He promised that the federal government will do more to promote the development and application of unbiased science because “science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been.”  The atrazine review should be a proving ground for this commitment.

~ ~ ~

In the end, it might not be atrazine that caused the death of my parents and my uncle. And it might not be atrazine causing breast cancers in midwestern women. Maybe it was DDT. At least one study has found that women with breast cancer are five times as likely to have DDT residues in their blood. Other studies have linked pesticides and pancreatic cancer.

No wonder farming is considered one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. Who knew that farmers’ families, their neighbors, and their neighbors’ neighbors were at risk, too. If we miss this opportunity to delve deeply into the potential link between a widely used chemical and the health of our food producers and their communities, anger—not acceptance—is the appropriate response.

Tagged as: atrazine, syngenta
I applaud your attention to this issue. My family has suffered similar tragedy at the hands of our toxic environment. I have written a book about it called "How To Survive (And Thrive) In A Toxic World" by jeannette russell. It is now available on Amazon.com. It describes our cancer journey and gives people the tools to avoid our tragic fate.
— jeannette russell
I am 21 years old, and 27 weeks into a high risk pregnancy, thanks to atrazine. My baby suffers from gastroschisis. I have found many mother's on my space that have had children with gastroschisis, you could put them across a map and see a silhouette of Atrazine. I was just looking for more proof to put on my my space to get the word out. it's so nice to get an opinion on the inside. thanks for getting it out there, if it's all we can do!
— Destiny Brown
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Also from Sandra Zellmer

Sandra Zellmer is the Robert B. Daugherty Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska College of Law, where she began teaching in 2003. She is also a co-director of the University's Water Resources Research Initiative, an interdisciplinary educational and research effort.

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