EU decision to bar atrazine puts focus on herbicide’s use here
by Tom Pelton, Baltimore Sun reporter.
As birds sang in blossoming pear trees outside the McGinnis farmhouse in northern Baltimore County, a tanker truck with a 75- foot-wide boom rumbled across the family’s fields, spraying chemicals.
The nozzles were shooting phosphorus to fertilize the cornfield. In a few days, workers plan to make a second pass to spray atrazine, a herbicide that kills thistle and other weeds that sprout between rows.
About 75 percent of American corn farmers over the past half- century have made a springtime ritual out of spraying atrazine, using about 70 million pounds every year as a labor-saving alternative to tilling to remove weeds. Farmers such as Wayne McGinnis argue that it is harmless and makes their farms more productive.
But as the European Union prepares to ban the herbicide by 2007, renewed attention is being focused on its safety here. The EU decided to take the chemical off the market as a precaution after it was detected in drinking water. Environmental groups in the U.S. have filed lawsuits claiming that the compound should be banned here because researchers not only have detected it in drinking water, but also have linked atrazine to deformities in frogs and lower sperm counts in men.
To settle one of the lawsuits, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed last month to study whether atrazine is killing loggerhead turtles and other endangered species in the Chesapeake Bay.
“The potential impact of atrazine is very big,” said Tyrone Hayes, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who has studied the compound. “We see a chemical castration of amphibians, through a loss of testosterone. This is an indicator that we all need to be very concerned.”
Hayes’ research concluded that atrazine is sterilizing male frogs and contributing to a decrease in the number of amphibians worldwide. He said other researchers have published studies associating exposure to the herbicide with higher rates of prostate cancer in men.
The EPA believes that atrazine is not likely to cause cancer in humans, and that it is “unlikely there are significant adverse ecological effects” from using the herbicide properly, said Steven Bradbury, director of a division of the EPA’s office of pesticide programs.
But the federal agency believes Hayes’ study and others are enough to suggest “it’s a reasonable hypothesis” that amphibians might be harmed by the herbicide, Bradbury said. The question deserves further study, he said.
The leading manufacturer of the liquid compound denies it hurts humans or wildlife.
“The EPA has determined that it would not pose adverse effects to humans or the environment if it’s used according to label,” said Sherry Ford, spokeswoman for an American branch of the Swiss firm Syngenta, “which means not going over the amount specified on the label.”
To McGinnis and other farmers, calls for a ban on atrazine do not make sense because they have been using it for decades without obvious harm.
McGinnis, 69, said he has been spraying atrazine on his family’s 1,200 acres for three decades. He said his family is in its sixth generation of good health on the farm, with his parents living into their 90s.
“We are right in the middle of spraying this stuff. If it was going to hurt anybody, it would hurt us,” McGinnis said, as he played with his 3-year-old granddaughter in front of the family’s almost 200-year-old, stone-and-wood farmhouse.
His son, Jay McGinnis, 38, said the frogs are so numerous in the pond in front of their home that guests have a hard time sleeping at night because the chirping is so loud.
“The frogs are everywhere,” said Jay McGinnis, who gave up a career as a mortgage broker to help keep alive his family’s farm near White Hall. “If you come out here, you can hear them singing all night long.”
The farming industry, which has employed former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to lobby for the continued approval of atrazine, has argued that growers would lose at least $1 billion a year if the chemical were banned.
Wayne McGinnis said eliminating atrazine might also hurt the Chesapeake Bay. The chemical kills weeds so efficiently it allows “no till” farming, he said. That means tractors don’t need to pull claw-like devices through the fields twice each spring to rip up weeds. That process digs up soil that runs with rainfall into nearby streams and, eventually, the bay.
“Without atrazine, it would mean more time and labor, an increase in fuel use to till the fields, and more sediments running into our streams and reservoirs,” Wayne McGinnis said.
Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, said farmers are right when they say that “no till” agriculture helps keep mud and silt out of the Chesapeake Bay. But Boesch added that “the jury’s still out” on whether trace levels of the herbicide harm marine life.
“It’s pretty clear that at a high enough dose, atrazine would affect amphibians,” said Dr. Lynn Goldman, former assistant administrator for the EPA’s office of pesticides and now professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The question is, at the levels that are actually in the environment, does it actually affect them? There has been a lot of controversy surrounding that question.”
Less harmful to wildlife is another common herbicide, called Roundup, manufactured by Monsanto and other companies, said Jonathan Kaplan, sustainable agriculture project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the EPA to seek a ban on atrazine.
Better yet for the environment is organic farming, Kaplan said. “We need to be looking for nonchemical alternatives in farming,” he said. “Organic farming is a good candidate. It does cost more, but not as much as you might think.”
Wayne McGinnis said organic farming serves a narrow, wealthy market and is not practical for feeding America and the world. He said chemical-free farming produces less food per acre, demands heavy amounts of manure and requires many more manual laborers willing to do back-breaking labor.
“I don’t think the American population is prepared to move back to the farm and grab a hoe,” McGinnis said.
McGinnis said he prefers atrazine to Roundup in part because atrazine prevents weed growth for an entire season, while Roundup kills only the weeds present at the time of spraying and often must be applied repeatedly.
Aaron Colangelo, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it’s an important victory that the EPA last month agreed to study the effects of atrazine on endangered species such as loggerhead turtles, Kemp’s ridley turtles, green turtles and shortnose sturgeon. “This is an important step toward protecting life in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere,” he said.
As an example of the chemical’s effects on nature, he pointed to Hayes’ study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2002. It found that 16 percent to 20 percent of African clawed frogs exposed to minute levels of atrazine in labs developed dysfunctional gonads. Eggs grew in the testes of males, making them sterile.
The same trace levels – 0.1 part per billion, or the equivalent of a thousandth of a grain of salt in a fish tank – are common in streams in agricultural areas of Maryland and elsewhere, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Farmers in Maryland sprayed 600,000 pounds of the weed killer in 2000, according to state figures. The chemical shows up in rain, the bay and many drinking-water wells, according to federal researchers.
A 2003 study of 50 Missouri men, led by Shanna Swan of the University of Missouri School of Medicine, found that farmers with atrazine and other pesticides in their blood were more likely to have low sperm counts and unhealthy sperm, according to the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Rena Steinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who helped file the lawsuit, said the EU decided to ban atrazine by 2007 because it was showing up in trace levels in drinking water. It took the position that caution was wiser than waiting for proof that atrazine is hurting people or animals, she said.
In America, similar levels are in tap water, but the federal government appears to be taking a more industry-friendly approach, she said.
“Here, we don’t move until we are absolutely certain that it’s causing harm,” Steinzor said. “We have to find dead bodies in the street, and that’s a shame, because our laws were set up to prevent injury.”