Skip to main content

Did you happen to read the front page article, “Debating How Much Weed Killer is Safe in Your Water Glass,” in this Sunday’s NY Times? I’m adding to this good piece of journalism so that you can see why and how a harmful chemical such as the weed killer atrazine is allowed to make its way into your home. There’s more to it than the article reveals. This chemical does even more harm to fetuses and children, EPA is even more complicit in allowing us to drink it in, and the manufacturer plays an even more shameful part.

The company that makes this chemical is the Swiss-based Syngenta, the world’s largest agrochemical manufacturer. It used to be known as Novartis. Yes, it’s the same company that manufactures anti-cancer drugs, including those championed by Lance Armstrong. That means Syngenta is in essence making the chemicals that cause the cancer that its pharmaceutical arm profits from ‘curing.’

Syngenta told EPA that the high rates of prostate cancer among its atrazine factory workers is only because the company is so vigilant in screening for cancer. OK, said the agency. In 2003, in the same month that the European Union banned atrazine, the EPA decided to keep it on the U.S. market with no new restrictions. Before arriving at that decision, the EPA had held about fifty private meetings with Syngenta and consulted two advisory committees composed of only Syngenta and EPA representatives.

The chemical was, in fact, never allowed in Switzerland. But, since it’s cheap and it works, and because EPA gave its seal of approval, it’s become the most widely used weed killer in the corn belt states of America, sprayed over tens of millions of U.S. acres. The greatest concentrations are in that part of our nation, but even if you don’t live in the Midwest near a corn field, you and your children may encounter it on your lawns, gardens, parks, and golf courses.

You don’t want atrazine in your drinking water, especially if you are pregnant. The Times explained the chemical can cause birth defects, low birth weight and premature births. But wait, there’s more. Here’s a run-down of atrazine’s other possible effects. It can alter the way a person’s genes perform – the way they turn on or off-- which may lead to cancer as well as learning and behavioral problems. (For instance, a gene that should turn on to fight a carcinogen or neural damage may fail to do so.)

It’s also a gender-bender, capable of disrupting the fetal and child’s hormone system. It turns male frogs into hermaphrodites and it can do something along the same lines to fetuses (the hormones and mechanisms of sexual development in frogs are like those in humans). When an independent scientist-researcher discovered this unsettling fact, Syngenta cut off the funding for his study. The Kansas Corn Growers Association added its muscle power by launching a campaign to blast his credibility.

As for the industry argument that low levels cannot harm, first recall that, as the NY Times article mentioned, concentrations spike sharply from time to time in community water supplies without any notice to residents. Second, the frog studies showed that when tadpoles – rather than adult frogs -- were exposed, twenty percent of them grew up hermaphroditic even though the level of the chemical was thirty thousand times lower than previous tests, on adult frogs, had indicated.

In sum, atrazine is a poster child for the blatant inadequacies of our nation’s chemical manufacture and approval process, and for the corporate pursuit of profit.

What does this mean to you?
First, especially if you are or intend to become pregnant, or if you have children, install a water filter. A whole house filter is best (because our skin absorbs water when we shower), but smaller filters do an ok job for drinking water.

Second, get behind a piece of legislation that’s languished in Congress for years – the Kids Safe Chemical Act. Let your local legislator hear from you.
Third, call your local water authority and pressure them to test your community’s water often.

Alice is co-author with her husband Philip of Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on our Children. See pgs 175-177 for the tale of atrazine.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!