U.S. drinking water is widely contaminated by atrazine, a weed-killer that disrupts hormones in animals and is considered dangerous for pregnant women, according to a new report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The NRDC report says the chemical “is a known endocrine disruptor, which means that it affects human and animal hormones. It has been tied to poor sperm quality in humans and hermaphroditic amphibians.”

Another new report says atrazine, one of the nation’s most widely used herbicides, has been found to exceed federal safety limits in drinking water in four states: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kansas. Atrazine is commonly used on corn, so it is no surprise that those are all major corn-growing states.

More than 40 water systems in those states showed spikes in atrazine levels that normally would have triggered automatic notification of customers, the report from the Huffington Post Investigative Fund says. Residents were not alerted in any of these cases.

Both reports are based on federal Environmental Protection Agency records from 2003 to 2008 that the organizations obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

“Water that’s being polluted by atrazide is being drunk by you and your neighbors,” Paul Wotzka, a Minnesota farmer and former hydrologist for the state, says in a video produced by the Huffington Post Fund.

Yet another new report, from ProPublica, says drinking water in Wyoming has been contaminated by chemicals commonly used in the gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing.

And The New York Times reported this week that an analysis of EPA data shows that 40 percent of the nation’s community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once last year, and dozens of chemicals have been detected at unsafe levels in drinking water.

This comes on top of findings announced by the Interior Department last week that fish in streams across the country are contaminated with mercury, whose main source is coal-fired power plants. And pollution of watersheds by toxic animal wastes from corporate “factory farms” is triggering lawsuits and public outcry.

As the Obama administration moves into its eighth month, departments and agencies responsible for safeguarding the environment and public health face the challenge of cleaning up eight years of neglect or deliberate sabotage by Bush appointees who made protection of corporate profits their priority.

The NRDC report is titled “Poisoning the Well: How the EPA is Ignoring Atrazine Contamination in Surface and Drinking Water in the Central United States.”

Jennifer Sass, a scientist and an author of the report, said the EPA has been “ignoring some very high concentrations of this pesticide in water that people are drinking and using every day. This exposure could have a considerable impact on reproductive health. Scientific research has tied this chemical to some ghastly impacts on wildlife and raises red flags for possible human impacts.”

“People living in contaminated areas need to be made aware — and the regulators need to get this product off the market,” she said.

The report shows that the EPA, by relying on a yearly average for assessing the levels of the dangerous herbicide in drinking water, allowed dangerously high peaks of the chemical to occur.

The EPA currently does not consider one-time spikes in atrazine to be dangerous, but according to the Huffington Post Fund report, many scientists think otherwise. One study, published this year in the medical journal Acta Paediatrica, found that birth defect rates in the U.S. were highest for women who conceived during months when atrazine levels were spiking.

“If you happen to become pregnant in June, you care about the levels in June, not in January,” said Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist at the University of Rochester who has studied atrazine’s effect on semen quality and development.

“For pregnant women, you have a critical period of a couple of weeks to a couple of months,” Swan said. “If you have a peak exposure in that period, that’s what’s relevant to the pregnancy.”

EPA officials say they expect President Obama’s new EPA head, Lisa Jackson, to re-examine atrazine and other chemicals, The New York Times reports.

“Atrazine is obviously very controversial and in widespread use, and it’s one of a number of substances that we’ll be taking a hard look at,” Stephen Owens, who was recently confirmed as the EPA assistant administrator for prevention, pesticides and toxic substances, told The Times.

He continued: “I can’t say whether the outcome will be any different, but Administrator Jackson has made clear that we need to take a close look at decisions made in the previous administration, and be certain about the science behind those judgments.”

In addition to its use in agriculture, atrazine is also used on lawns, gardens, parks and golf courses.

It is the most commonly detected pesticide in U.S. waters.

suewebb @ pww.org


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.