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A is for Atrazine

August 29, 2009

The EPA, Syngenta, and the president of the American Council on Science and Health believe that current levels of the weed killer, atrazine, in our water supply are acceptable and that our tap water is safe. What if they’re wrong?


When the New York Times printed its controversial article (“Debating How Much Weed Killer is Safe in Your Water Glass,” Charles Duhigg, August 23, 2009, NY Times,) Elizabeth Whelan was livid. Whelan, the president of the American Council on Science and Health (, answered immediately on the website, “How much ‘weed killer’ in your water is safe? Well, how much arsenic in your natural baked potato is safe? (Arsenic occurs naturally in potatoes.)” (“NYT Terrifies Over ‘Weed Killers’ in Water,” Elizabeth M. Whelan, August 22, 2009,

            What was the controversial chemical in weed killers sprayed all over lawns, golf courses, and corn fields that had Whelan up in arms? Atrazine, that’s what.

            If you said “huh?” here is a quiz for the basic atrazine novice:

A. What is atrazine anyways?

  1. An organic compound consisting of an s-triazine-ring
  2. The most widely used herbicide with over 75 million pounds sprayed per year in the U.S.
  3. The “most common chemical contaminant of ground and surface water in the United States,” according to U.C. Berkley scientist, Tyrone Hayes
  4. A chemical used in the production of dyes and explosives
  5. A teratogen and an estrogen disruptor, according to Tyrone Hayes
  6. A product sold under various brand names such as AAtrex and most commonly used on corn in farming states but also on sugar cane and Christmas trees
  7. “Even at concentrations meeting current federal standards,” according to the New York Times, “the chemical may be associated with birth defects, low birth weights and menstrual problems.”
  8. Banned in 2004 in the European Union because of its “persistent groundwater contamination”
  9. Made predominantly by Swiss company Syngenta AG but banned in its home country, Switzerland
  10. All of the Above

If you answered 10, you are as smart as a 5th Grader, but hopefully you’re not one of the “estimated 33 million Americans” who “have been exposed to atrazine through their taps,” according to Duhigg.

            Why was Whelan so upset with the New York Times? Duhigg quoted Linda S. Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Services, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, who said, “I’m very concerned about the general population’s exposure to atrazine. We don’t know really know what these chemicals do to fetuses or prepubescent children.” According to Duhigg, “Forty percent of the nation’s community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once last year, according to a Times analysis of E.P.A. data, and dozens of chemicals have detected at unsafe levels in drinking water.” And a Government Accountability Office report in January said that “the E.P.A’s system for assessing toxic chemicals was broken.”

Whelan was angry that the Times was scaring its readers with “all the news that’s fit to scare.” I can’t deny that after reading this article and numerous others about atrazine, it’s easy to be frightened. But this article was not brand new information that came out of nowhere. In 2004, the National Resources Defense Council wrote: “EPA Cut Private Deal with Manufacturers: Under the deal, the EPA will adopt no regulatory restrictions on atrazine use, and more than 96 percent of the streams that the EPA has identified as being at highest risk from atrazine contamination will remain untested by Syngenta. Nor will the EPA take any steps to protect those streams. The EPA has found that atrazine is toxic to some species in water at levels as low as 2.16 parts per billion (ppb). Under the new agreement, however, Syngenta will only be required to take additional steps, such as increased monitoring, when a stream exceeds a "level of concern" — apparently a range from 10 to 20 ppb — over a vaguely defined "prolonged period," and only then for the most contaminated of the 40 monitored streams.”

            Here is what was written in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health in 2006: “Atrazine is a common agricultural herbicide with endocrine disruptor activity. There is evidence that it interferes with reproduction and development, and may cause cancer. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved its continued use in October 2003, that same month the European Union (EU) announced a ban of atrazine because of ubiquitous and unpreventable water contamination. The authors reviewed regulatory procedures and government documents, and report efforts by the manufacturer of atrazine, Syngenta, to influence the U.S. atrazine assessment, by submitting flawed scientific data as evidence of no harm, and by meeting repeatedly and privately with EPA to negotiate the government's regulatory approach. Many of the details of these negotiations continue to be withheld from the public, despite EPA regulations and federal open-government laws that require such decisions to be made in the open.” (Sass JB, Colagelo A, 2006 July-September, 260-7.)

So should we follow Elizabeth Whelan and the proponents of tap water who tell us not to worry, that most tap water is fine? Instead, they tell us to take vaccines for the swine flu or as Elizabeth warns, we shouldn’t give “top priority to a bogus risk…it is completely counter-productive, distracting us from the real public health hazards we face today.”

Elizabeth must hate Tyrone Hayes whose website,, is made for skeptics like Whelan. “Atrazine chemically castrates and feminizes wildlife and reduces immune function in both wildlife and laboratory rodents,” he writes. According to Hayes, atrazine induces breast and prostrate cancer, induces abortion, causes neural damage and inhibits immune cells that themselves kill cancer. According to studies referred by Hayes, men exposed to atrazine in a Syngenta facility in Louisiana developed prostate cancer 8.4 times the rate of unexposed factory workers and women whose well water was contaminated with atrazine were more likely to develop breast cancer compared to women in the same area who didn’t drink well water. Hayes also claims that “atrazine destroys cells in the brain and causes behavioral disorders.”

            So should we not be concerned about this chemical sprayed over our corn, sugar and trees that travels through our groundwater into our pipes because the EPA says it’s safe at its normal levels? Should we not be worried that it’s banned in Europe but is still used in mammoth amounts in the United States? Should we not mind that Syngenta fails to monitor most towns and withholds its information from the public or that it spends millions of dollars each year lobbying Congress? I guess we should put our heads in the ground, as long as the ground is not sprayed with atrazine.

            Tell this to parents who have kids with unexplained cancers. As the New York Times writes, “The E.P.A. has not cautioned pregnant women about the potential risks of atrazine so that they can consider using inexpensive home filtration systems.” How should we explain why a child has a tumor without wondering about carcinogenic chemicals in his mother’s drinking water, in the air she breathes, or the food she eats? According to Duhigg, “five epidemiological studies published in peer-reviewed journals have found evidence suggesting that small amounts of atrazine in drinking water, including levels considered safe by federal standards may be associated with birth defects—including skull and facial malformations and misshapen limbs—as well as low birth weights in newborns and premature births.”

Don’t tell this to Diana who doesn’t have time to think about why her son had neuroblastoma or why the incidences of neuroblastoma in children ages 1-4 rose 16% from 1999 to 2005 (National Program for Cancer Registries). She can only focus on doing the best she can to make him comfortable in his last weeks of life. When she received Noah’s latest bone marrow report, the percent of his marrow that was lit up with cancer had gone from 5% to 40% in a few weeks.

            Noah’s mother wrote, “Because of his marrow progression, we have maybe four-five weeks—at best. Without good marrow, his body will start to shut down.” Right now, she and her son wait for Noah’s hero, Brandon Inge, from the Tigers, to come and play with Brandon. If A is for atrazine, B is for Brandon, whom Noah hopes will hit a home run for him in a Tigers game soon. Too bad Brandon is not a miracle man able to cure the cancer that has spread so fast in little Noah’s body.  But to Noah, he is his favorite Tiger hero and is what he has to live for.

Waiting for a hero to show up and being free from pain for a little while is easing the hell of cancer for Noah. “For now,” Diana writes, “all is calm. Noah walking and playing and not having any pain is nothing short of a miracle!!”

            Here is another miracle: if members of the EPA and Elizabeth Whelan and the board of directors of Syngenta AG would stop for a moment and take seriously the potential dangers of atrazine. Why can’t they consider the studies of Berkley researcher, Tyrone Hayes, who has an entire website devoted to the dangers of atrazine (under the sarcastic web address, Why can’t they admit that Professor Cory-Slechta from the University of Rochester and who serves on the E.P.A’s science advisory board may have a point when she says, “The way the E.P.A. tests chemicals can vastly underestimate risks” and “There’s still a huge amount we don’t know about atrazine.” Whelan should at least accept the possibility that Syngenta acts like the makers of cigarettes and asbestos did when they said that their products were safe and effective.

            Why should Americans be subjected to a chemical banned in the country that produces it? Why should pregnant mothers and the rest of us be allowed to be guinea pigs for controversial chemicals like atrazine? The EPA needs to protect Americans from the chemicals that may be dangerous at low levels or at least force its manufacturers to test local water levels and inform the public of the potential dangers.  

There is something, thankfully, we all can do without help from government agencies if we can afford to. Using a carbon-filter water purifier at home or buying filtered water in large containers such as the five-gallon variety (found at Whole Foods, Absopure, and other outlets) protects against toxic chemicals like atrazine. We can also write to the EPA, Congress, Syngenta, and join the Atrazine Lovers Network which has updated info on atrazine and what is being done to combat its proliferation.

Whatever we do now, however, won’t help children who are dying from cancer or their parents who are suffering. And nor will anything else such as willpower, as the mother of Miles Levin who died from cancer two years ago, wrote in her Carepages update. “All of them (children with cancer) had wills of steel (and hearts of gold),” she wrote, “and yet, in the end, after enduring brutality for the purpose of survival…..none of that strength and determination meant squat….When you look up the word ‘powerless’ in the dictionary, it shows the picture of a mom or dad whose child has cancer.” (“To Whom it May Concern,” Nancy Levin,, August 26, 2009)

I don’t care about the manufacturers of atrazine or the EPA or the president of the American Council of Science and Health. Those who make excuses for chemicals that are possible carcinogens are charlatans selling nothing but the status quo and hope.

Now, we are left to hope that chemical concoctions like atrazine are safe at current levels. We are left to wonder what could have caused the cancer of a little boy like Noah as we consider frightening words from Tyrone Hayes: “Perhaps most important, based on laboratory rodent studies, exposures to atrazine (and other pesticides) may have their greatest effects, before individuals are even born. Several studies in laboratory rats and even in humans are now showing that exposure to pollutants in the womb can contribute to diseases such as cancer, immune suppression and learning disabilities later in life.”

We can pray that our children or future grandchildren or siblings or parents or we ourselves will not be stricken by the destruction of cancer. And we can mourn for children like Noah and Miles who never had a chance to experience normal adult lives.

Maybe atrazine or chemicals like them have nothing to do with the death of children. Or maybe they do. Consider the words of scientist Tyrone Hayes, when he says, “keep in mind that many of the studies showing the inhibition of immune cells (including the cells that kill cancer) by atrazine were conducted using human cells. Given that approximately one million people per day and 60% of all Americans are exposed to atrazine, this is a concern.”

Given that atrazine travels fast in our water system, lasts for decades, affects hormones, reduces sperm, and causes devastating damage to fish, wildlife, lab rodents and very possibly humans, we better be concerned.  

God help us if we’re not.



Atrazine chemical structure
Atrazine in groundwater
Atrazine in the environment



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