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:
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.