Poisoning the Well: atrazine is scary, and it's everywhere


Years ago, when I first moved to the Midwest (Columbus, Ohio, to be more precise) from California one of the first things I noticed was the corn.  Not corn fields, mind you, although there were plenty of those, but corn in the grocery store, in farmers’ markets, and along road-side stands.  On the whole, Midwest produce doesn’t really hold a candle to California produce but, oh, the corn!  Sweet, juicy, and luscious, it was a revelation to a city kid like me who never really went for corn-on-the-cob.

At the time, little did I realize what was being used to cultivate so much of that corn: atrazine, a truly nasty chemical.  As detailed by Charles Duhigg in a New York Times article published today, atrazine is a herbicide, applied in the spring to kill weeds before crops begin to grow.  It’s also an endocrine disrupter, meaning that it can interfere with normal hormone activity.  When organisms are exposed to atrazine, particularly at sensitive periods in their development, bad things happen.  Exposure as low as 0.1 parts per billion have been shown to cause the development of female sex characteristics in male frogs and the development of eggs in male frog testes.  (As Stephen Colbert recently put it when interviewing Nicholas Kristof about endocrine disruptors, “you’re saying something is happening to fish junk?”)

There is also evidence that may link atrazine to low sperm counts in farm workers, cancer in laboratory animals, and human cancers, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In the United States alone, an estimated 60 to 80 million pounds of atrazine are applied to corn, sugarcane, and sorghum crops every year.  Much of it in the Midwest.  Atrazine ends up in our rivers, streams, creeks and lakes; even in our drinking water.  Because of the inability to keep atrazine out of surface waters, the European Union completely banned the stuff in 2004.

NRDC’s report, Poisoning the Well, helped to inform the Times story and we will be briefing the press on its findings Monday.  The report detail the shocking extent of atrazine contamination in surface waters and drinking water systems throughout the central United States.  Our report brings together data from two different EPA monitoring programs, explains the ways in which the federal government has failed to properly regulate this chemical, and recommends solutions.  We also have an interactive map available online. We’ll be briefing press about the report tomorrow. Check it out.