Obama EPA Takes Strike One on Atrazine

by Rena Steinzor

The publication of in-depth investigative reporting on complex regulatory issues is a phenomenon that has become as rare as hen’s teeth, and I greeted the front-page story in Sunday's New York Times on the perils posed by atrazine with a big cheer. Unfortunately, despite reporter Charles Duhigg’s best efforts, the response of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokespeople and other commentators garbled the issue substantially. What the story revealed is that even on this mammoth and controversial environmental problem, Obama’s EPA has not yet made plans to defuse the booby traps set up by the Bush Administration. It also left the unfortunate impression that experts think that it’s a reasonable public health policy to tell pregnant women to stop drinking tap water to protect their babies from atrazine “spikes.” This mindset that it is up to consumers to protect themselves by avoiding contaminated food, water, and even outside air is another tragic legacy of the Bush Administration and it should have vanished from the policymaking arena yesterday.

It’s too soon to condemn an underfunded and understaffed EPA for failing to beat a very tenacious industry team headed by Syngenta, the leading manufacturer of atrazine. After all, the political appointee who will direct the effort to defuse Bush era sabotage just moved into his office. But the EPA staff’s statements to the New York Times indicate that their first time up at bat was a strike, not a ball or a hit. Instead of taking responsibility for wading into the mess and defusing the booby traps soon, EPA staff said they are working on “competing priorities.”
Here’s the truth about atrazine:

  • Atrazine is used in huge quantities within the United States—as much as 60 to 80 million pounds are applied annually. As a result, according to a 1999 U.S. Geological Service survey, atrazine contaminates about 75 percent of stream water and 40 percent of groundwater. Groundwater is held in underground reservoirs known as aquifers. About half of Americans get their drinking water from those sources. If contamination was that bad in 1999, we can only imagine how much worse it has grown.
  • Atrazine is banned in Europe, both because those countries are more careful with their environment than we are and because Syngenta does not wield as much clout there. Ironically, a primary manufacturer of the safer alternative used there is Syngenta.
  • EPA regulates atrazine under two different legal regimes: (1) The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) tells the agency to decide whether a pesticide is safe to use, taking into consideration the economic costs of banning it, as well as remedies that could be implemented to diminish its harmful effects (e.g., don’t spray it on crops in a high wind when the clouds may drift into populated areas); and (2) The Safe Drinking Water Act sets the level of the pesticide that is permissible in drinking water at the tap.
  • As my colleague Holly Doremus explained in her related post, EPA’s efforts to control atrazine when it is used as a pesticide were notoriously corrupt during the Bush Administration, when EPA political appointees directed their career staff to cut secret deals with Syngenta to monitor the spread of the pesticide and did their best to ignore atrazine’s effects on sensitive wild life.
  • But EPA’s ongoing lethargy with regard to drinking water is equally troubling. The agency decided in 1993 that 3 parts per billion in tap water was acceptable. Required by the statute to review that finding every six years, the agency dawdled until 2003 before it concluded that the 1993 level was acceptable. A new review is due this year but EPA staff told the New York Times that they will not return to scrutinize the chemical until 2011.
  • Meanwhile, back in the Midwest, the NRDC analysis of even Syngenta’s questionable data show “spikes” of the chemical in drinking water well above 3 parts per billion. Spikes occur in the crop-growing season when the pesticide is used most heavily. The data are likely to understate the problem because the sampling protocol used to collect the information did not account for rainstorms that wash pesticides into rivers and streams and was not carefully correlated to heavy use during the growing season. As Jennifer Sass, the NRDC scientist who supervised its report has pointed out, spikes matter, not least because research done since 2003 shows that atrazine is an endocrine disrupter that can disrupt the normal development of fetuses.
  • And perhaps most distressing of all, these risks are demonstrably unnecessary. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that a complete ban on atrazine would result in crop losses of only 1.19 percent.

EPA staff had two levels of response to the New York Times exposé. The first, issued by low-level and unnamed staff, claimed that the drinking water standard is 300 to 1,000 (big range, huh?) “times lower than the levels where the agency saw health effects in the most sensitive animal species studied.” Presumably, this statement refers back to its 2003 conclusion, which in turn ratified its 1993 analysis.

The second response came from Stephen Owens, the political appointee who will head up the EPA effort to scrutinize atrazine whenever that effort gets under way, could only respond that “atrazine is obviously very controversial and in widespread use, and it’s one of a number of substances we’ll be taking a hard look at.” Widespread use and “controversy”—the Washington, D.C. word for loggerheads between the public health community and the chemical’s manufacturers—do seem like two criteria that should factor into setting priorities for that hard look. Hopefully, Mr. Owens’ staff will also remind him of the statutory requirement to finish that review this year.

At least one government scientist was courageous enough to contradict EPA staff. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told the New York Times that she was “very concerned about the general population’s exposure to atrazine.” She suggested that “at a minimum” pregnant women should know that atrazine is in their drinking water, presumably so they can bring bottled water into their homes.

While I sympathize with Birnbaum’s frustration, this solution has become the default choice among regulators rendered somnolent by eight years of Bush era neglect and disdain. Putting the burden on the victim is an utter abdication of regulatory responsibility, and yet it has gained inexplicable credibility in the context of mercury—pregnant women should not eat tuna fish; air pollution—keep the children indoors on Code Red days; perchlorate—use iodized salt or take vitamins with iodine, and too many other examples. Surely we can expect more from our government.

For more information, see the excellent report just released by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has led the fight against atrazine for more than a decade, and a related story by the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.

© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform