EPA Refusal to Restrict Atrazine Despite Health Threat Ignores Scientific Evidence, says NRDC

European Union Will Ban the Weed-killer Over Next 18 Months

WASHINGTON (October 31, 2003) -- Today's decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to approve the unrestricted use of the most widely used weed-killer in the nation, atrazine, will continue to expose Americans to an unnecessary and dangerous chemical, according to NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).

EPA was required to make what is called an "interim reregistration eligibility decision" (IRED) on the chemical by today under a court-approved consent decree that it reached with NRDC in 2001. The IRED will allow Syngenta, the main manufacturer of atrazine, and other companies to continue to sell the chemical in the United States with no significant restrictions.

"The Bush administration's decision to leave this toxic weed-killer on the market despite widespread contamination of drinking water and streams across the country is political not scientific," said NRDC Senior Attorney Erik Olson. "While Europe is banning atrazine to protect its citizens, here the Bush administration caves to the chemical industry's demands, regardless of the threat to public health."

Scientific studies have found that atrazine may cause a variety of cancers and harm human and animal reproductive and hormone systems, and it has been detected in more than 1 million Americans' drinking water at levels higher than EPA's drinking water standard. The 15-nation European Union recently announced it will ban atrazine over the next 18 months because of its risks. Atrazine is already tightly restricted in Switzerland, Syngenta's home country, because of water contamination.

EPA would not release any details about the IRED on paper or via email today to the public or news media except for a press release, but promised more written details will follow on Monday and thereafter.

"The devil is in the details, and we expect to find a lot of demons in this decision," said Jennifer Sass, an NRDC senior scientist. "There is mounting scientific evidence that atrazine poses a threat, but EPA is acting more like the Polluter Protection Agency than the Environmental Protection Agency."

NRDC participated this morning in a one-hour conference call that EPA hastily arranged to brief Syngenta, other industry representatives, and NRDC about its decision. Although EPA officials stated during the call that no one outside the agency had seen the final IRED, a Syngenta representative and an EPA official on the call told NRDC they had reached an agreement on what Syngenta will have to do to comply with the IRED. NRDC learned from the phone briefing that:

  • EPA struck a private agreement with the manufacturers of atrazine -- primarily Syngenta -- to adopt no regulatory restrictions on atrazine use. Syngenta has agreed to conduct a small number of water tests and to study the effects of atrazine on frogs.
  • EPA identified 1,172 watersheds that are at highest risk from atrazine contamination. Syngenta agreed with EPA in a private agreement to monitor atrazine pollution in only 20 of those highest risk streams -- less than 2 percent -- beginning in 2004, and 20 more -- for a total of 3.4 percent -- in 2005.
  • Syngenta will not monitor more than 96 percent of the streams that EPA has identified as being at highest risk, nor will EPA take any steps to protect those streams.
  • While EPA has found that atrazine is toxic to some species in water at levels as low as 2.16 parts per billion (ppb), the agency will not restrict atrazine use nationally. If monitoring in the 2 percent to 3 percent of the high risk streams shows a stream exceeds a "level of concern" (apparently a "range" from 10 to 20 ppb) over a "prolonged period" (precise definition and method of determining this is unclear), then after several additional steps beginning in 2005 and 2006, Syngenta has agreed to take certain additional steps. Those steps include more monitoring, and possibly "buffer zones" or "different application methods," but only for those most contaminated of the 40 monitored streams.
  • EPA concluded that atrazine is not likely to cause cancer is humans -- despite an August report from EPA's independent Scientific Advisory Panel that was highly critical of EPA's approach to reviewing cancer risks. The SAP found that atrazine may cause cancer, and that EPA's approach of focusing primarily on prostate cancer is "potentially misleading." The SAP noted that several animal studies and some human epidemiological studies have found cancer may be linked to atrazine exposure, though the panel said EPA failed to provide it with the full array of data to evaluate atrazine's cancer risks. NRDC recently filed legal papers to force EPA to fully assess all cancer risks and to ask for a full SAP review of those findings. Apparently in response, EPA now says it will ask the SAP for review of the issue -- in a year or two.

Recent studies show that atrazine seriously disrupts frogs' hormone systems and ability to reproduce. Despite these studies, and despite EPA's own conclusions that existing atrazine contamination may jeopardize the survival of dozens of endangered species, EPA continues to ignore its obligations under the Endangered Species Act. EPA has failed to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service on atrazine's risks to endangered species. NRDC sued EPA in August, charging that the agency is permitting the widespread use of atrazine even though it acknowledges the weed-killer might harm endangered species (see NRDC press release).

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.

Related NRDC Pages
January 31, 2003, EPA Decision Limiting Atrazine Exposure Fails to Protect Public, Says NRDC
Toxic Herbicide Atrazine Contaminating Water Supplies