EPA Failing To Protect Public from Weed-Killer's Cancer Threat, Says NRDC

Group Charges Agency Violated Court Order To Conduct Independent Scientific Review of Atrazine's Cancer Risks

WASHINGTON (October 14, 2003) -- The Environmental Protection Agency is failing to protect the public from the cancer threat posed by the most widely used weed-killer in the nation, says NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). In a legal motion filed today, the group charged that the agency violated the law by refusing to fully evaluate the links between cancer and the weed-killer, called atrazine. NRDC asked the court to force EPA to solicit an independent scientific review of the possible links between all cancers and the chemical, which the agency was required to do under a court order issued two years ago.

"Atrazine poses a cancer risk for millions of Americans," said NRDC Senior Attorney Erik Olson. "Instead of protecting the public, the EPA is ignoring a court order mandating an independent scientific review of its unfounded conclusion that atrazine does not cause cancer. This is yet another example of the Bush administration's cozy relationship with the chemical industry at the expense of public health."

Studies of people exposed to atrazine indicate that the chemical may be linked to a number of cancers, including prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Animal lab studies also have linked it to certain cancers and hormonal problems that could disrupt reproductive and developmental processes.

At least six European nations already have either banned the chemical or severely restricted its use, and last week it was reported that the European Union will withdraw its approval of atrazine because of health and environmental concerns. According to press accounts, the 15-nation EU will ban atrazine within the next 18 months (see the Financial Times of London's October 13 story). In response, the principle manufacturer of atrazine, Syngenta, issued a press release stating it already was selling an alternative to atrazine in Italy and Germany and would make it available in other European markets.

"The 15 nations of the European Union reviewed the science and banned atrazine -- and there are alternatives -- but our own government is sitting idly by, exposing Americans unnecessarily to this dangerous chemical," said Olson.

In the United States, 60 million to 70 million pounds of atrazine are applied annually to fields, golf courses and lawns, and EPA has found widespread atrazine contamination in U.S. waterways. The most recent data indicate that more than 1 million Americans drink from water supplies contaminated with atrazine at potentially harmful levels. (For information about atrazine in drinking water, see NRDC's June 2003 backgrounder.)

NRDC called on EPA to ban atrazine in June 2002 after studies showed it poses a significant threat to public health (see press release). In today's motion, the group asked the federal district court in San Francisco to compel EPA to comply with a consent decree -- which the court had approved -- requiring it to solicit an independent review by the agency's Scientific Advisory Panel of the links between all cancers and atrazine. A court hearing on the motion is scheduled for December 4.

This case goes back to 1999, when NRDC and a coalition of farm-worker and other groups sued EPA, alleging that the agency had missed its deadlines to review the safety of pesticides for children mandated by the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. In 2001, EPA and NRDC filed a consent decree requiring the agency to review the safety of atrazine and several other high-risk pesticides by specific deadlines. That decree was incorporated into a court order late that year. In early 2003, EPA asked for a deadline extension for reviewing atrazine, and NRDC agreed. The modified decree was incorporated into a new court order, which required EPA to ask the agency's independent Scientific Advisory Panel for a full review of all cancer data for atrazine. This summer, however, EPA told NRDC it had decided to forego the review. NRDC objected, pointing out that this would violate the court order. EPA responded by asking the advisory panel to review only prostate cancer data, ignoring other cancers, which violated the court order.

On August 29, the Scientific Advisory Panel issued a report criticizing EPA for ignoring atrazine's links to other cancers, stating that it might be "misleading" to review only prostate cancer data. The advisory panel further demanded that EPA review data on atrazine's links to all cancers, and chastised the agency for flatly asserting there is no link between prostate cancer and atrazine.

"Even EPA's own science advisors are blasting it for refusing to do a careful review of the connection between atrazine and all types of cancer," said NRDC Senior Scientist Jennifer Sass. "There is mounting evidence that atrazine may cause a wide variety of health problems, including several types of cancer, but the EPA apparently doesn't want to know. It won't stand up to pressure from the pesticide industry and agribusiness to do nothing."

In a related case, NRDC sued EPA in August, charging that the agency has unlawfully ignored atrazine's effects on endangered species (see press release). EPA has concluded that atrazine may harm endangered fish, reptiles, amphibians, mussels, and the aquatic plant life that provides habitat for them, but it has failed to address the problem.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.