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Atrazine's manufacture settles lawsuit, but EPA review still looms

Andrew Wetzler

Posted May 28, 2012

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Last Friday afternoon Sygenta, the Swiss manufacturer of the pesticide atrazine--a chemical that cannot be used in its home country the European Union, but whose use is so prevalent here in the United States that it can be detected in our rain--announced that it was settling a long-standing lawsuit brought against it by cities throughout the Midwest.  The lawsuit sought compensation from the costs of removing atrazine from municipal drinking water systems.

In return for ending the litigation, Sygenta will create a fund of about $65 million dollars to help pay cities for the cost of their water treatment.  This is good news for eligible cities, whose taxpayers have born the cost of removing atrazine from drinking water for far too long.

What should not be lost in the all the attention, however, is the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency is still reviewing the safety of atrazine.  If the EPA follow the science, and wants to protect public health, it will move to phase out atrazine’s use next year.  But that outcome is far from certain.  Sygenta has mounted a furious public relations campaign to keep atrazine on the market.

Speaking of science, I was struck by a line from a joint statement by the Sygenta and the plaintiffs: "After almost eight years of litigation, the plaintiffs were unable to come up with any new scientific studies relating to the safety of atrazine. No one ever has or ever could be exposed to enough atrazine in water to affect their health." It also states the plaintiffs are "not aware of any new scientific studies relating to the safety of atrazine."

This statement is, by any ordinary use of the English language, false.  There are numerous epidemiological studies strongly correlating atrazine exposure with birth defects and reproductive problems, many of which have been extensively covered by Switchboard here (below is an illustration from one of these published studies).

United States birth defect rates by month of LMP versus atrazine concentrations (Winchester et al. 2009)

Among EPA’s summary of the existing scientific literature (which you can read in a PowerPoint presentation here):

  • Atrazine exposure was associated with delayed timing of menopause (Farr 2006), and with a 2-fold increased risk of gestational diabetes among women who had direct exposure to atrazine during pregnancy. (Saldena 2007);
  • Men with detectable atrazine in their urine were 11-times more likely to have poor semen quality than men without atrazine (95% CI 1.3-98.9). (Swan 2003); and
  • Abdominal wall defects in infants was correlated with surface water atrazine contamination (Mattix 2007). Gastroschisis (a specific abdominal wall defect) was elevated in infants of mothers residing in areas of high surface and groundwater atrazine levels (Waller 2010). Birth defects were associated with conception during spring atrazine use (Winchester 2009). Infant limb abnormalities and abdominal cavity defects were more common in infants born to mothers residing closer to corn and soybean fields (Ochoa-Acuna, 2009).

As another 2012 study, by twenty-two scientists from major research institutions in the United States, Canada, Japan, Belgium, Croatia, Argentina, Brazil, and England, summarizing over a decade or research on atrazine, concluded: “atrazine is prevalent and persistent in the environment" and "can have dramatic effects on ecosystems, environmental health and public health."

UPDATE: I have been told by a reliable source that the language quoted above was not, in fact, from an approved joint release with the plaintiffs’ attorneys but from a separate release issued solely by Syngenta either simultaneously with, or just after, the approved joint statement.

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Pete MyersMay 29 2012 06:50 AM

Atrazine is used in Switzerland. Check it out. It's been baned in the EU but Switzerland is not part of the EU.

Andrew WetzlerMay 29 2012 10:51 AM

Pete, thanks for the comment. I went back and double-checked this and, although there are numerous references online to atrazine being banned in Switzerland (as well as the European Union), I couldn't track down a reference to the appropriate Swiss regulations, and so have corrected the post in an abundance of caution.

The point remains, however, that Sygenta is selling (in great quantities) a chemical it cannot sell in its backyard.

Chris CadyMay 29 2012 11:20 AM

I don't know what LMP is in that graph, that should have been defined, but it really doesn't matter. This appears to be a case of 'correlation vs. causality.' A graph of tornadoes in the US by month would look exactly the same. So do tornadoes cause birth defects too?

I'm not a fan of atrazine, but poor science or poor science reporting doesn't help the situation. JMHO.

Andrew WetzlerMay 29 2012 11:36 AM

Thanks for commenting Chris. "LMP" means "last menstrual period" (i.e., before pregnancy). As for the substance of your post, while correlation isn't always causation--sometimes it’s damn indicative.

Finally, we're not just talking about one epidemiological study here, check out the third bullet point above (dealing with birth defects).

Gary EngelJun 6 2012 04:02 PM

Chris Cady is correct re "poor science" - have you looked at Waller, for instance? The study's methodology as it was first published is not only poor--but the article was then significantly corrected:

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