STOKING FIRE: OTC Weed-Killing Toxin Causes Birth Defects, Poses Wide Range of Other Health Hazards


Back in May, Syngenta, one of the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers—a company with offices in 90 countries and a workforce of 26,000 people—settled an eight-year-old class action lawsuit for $105 million. The agreement provides funding to more than 30 districts in the Midwestern United States to clean up water supplies that had been contaminated by Atrazine, a pesticide that was banned by the European Union in 2004 and that the National Institutes of Health have linked to adult illnesses and disabilities in newborn babies who were exposed to it in utero. 

According to the NIH, research indicates that the number of babies born with birth defects in places where Atrazine is sprayed—defects that include spina bifida, Down syndrome, respiratory anomalies, and esophageal, and gastrointestinal abnormalities–is consistently higher in the months following its use.  

“Atrazine is applied and spread on crops in the spring,” Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council explains.

“It then goes into the ground water. The amount spikes during application season so that there are weeks, or even months, when people are exposed to drinking water containing more than three parts per billion—the threshold for safety that has been determined by the Environmental Protection Agency–of this known endocrine disruptor. That’s why when a woman conceives during Atrazine application season, she is more likely to have a baby with health issues.”

And the danger of Atrazine extends beyond physical imperfections in newborns. The Centers for Disease Control found that “chronic high dose toxicity observed in animals demonstrated decreased body weight, myocardial muscle degeneration, liver toxicity, developmental ossification defects, impaired fertility, altered estrus cycles, delayed onset of puberty, and reduced levels of luteinizing hormones, prolactin, and testosterone.” In addition, scientists noticed that humans exposed to high levels of Atrazine had an elevated risk of miscarriage, breast, and prostate cancers.

“The settlement money will help clean up and prevent future contamination,” says Paul Towers, the Organizing and Media Director of the Pesticide Action Network of North America “But it does not have any public health implications for the hazards of Atrazine. On the positive side, there is money for cleaning the water Midwesterners drink. The problem is that Syngenta has lobbied hard to keep selling Atrazine; it’s their flagship product.”

PANNA estimates that seven million US residents were exposed to Atrazine in their drinking water in the five years between 1998 and 2003. What’s more, 75 percent of all corn, 58.5 percent of all sorghum, and 76 percent of all sugarcane is presently treated with the pesticide. It’s also used on lawns and golf courses throughout the country.

As if this were not enough, recent studies conducted by the NRDC found Atrazine in the drinking water of 153 public water systems. “The adverse effects of Atrazine have been seen in amphibians, mammals, and humans, even at low levels of exposure,” the researchers concluded. ”Concentrations as low as one part per billion have been shown to alter the development of sex characteristics in male frogs.”

No, people are not frogs. Still, it seems clear that dangers lurk, something the EPA noted 22 years ago when it dubbed the herbicide a “restricted use product.” Despite this gesture, the designation changed nothing. Atrazine continues to be sold over the counter—to the tune of 76 million pounds a year in the U.S. alone–and there is absolutely no oversight to make sure that it is used safely. Worldwide, 60 countries allow it to be sprayed on crops.

For its part, despite the settlement agreement, Syngenta is hunkering down and continuing to sing Atrazine’s praises.

“Syngenta acknowledges no liability and continues to stand by the safety of Atrazine,” Ann Bryan, the company’s Senior Manager for External Relations wrote in an email. ”The value of Atrazine is clear. It benefits American farmers by up to $3.3 billion and supports up to 85,000 American jobs related to farming annually.”

Indeed, Atrazine IS effective and has proven to be a fast and inexpensive way to kill weeds. The question is whether having weed-free fields is worth the health risks everyone but Syngenta associates with the product.      

Worse, the fact that Atrazine can linger in the water supply for up to 15 years should give everyone–from the EPA, to farmers, to corporate executives—pause, especially since it is possible to promote safer ways of using Atrazine until it can be phased out.

The Land Stewardship Project cautions that if Atrazine has to be utilized it should never be sprayed within 200 feet of a lake, pond, or reservoir and urges the planting of high grass buffers along all rivers and streams. At the same time, the Project argues that weed control without pesticides is possible—if more labor intensive.

It comes down to how much we value the people who plant, pick, and nurture our crops since farm workers and their offspring are clearly at disproportionate risk of pesticide poisoning. “Farmers seem stuck on a pesticide treadmill,” PANNA’s Paul Towers admits. ”Rather than moving toward more ecological practices that allow us to grow more successfully, they too-often fall prey to relentless sales pitches from pesticide corporations.”  

That said, some heartening progress in workplace and consumer safety is evident. Not only has BPA, another known endocrine disruptor associated with increased heart disease, diabetes, liver toxicity, and breast cancer, been banned from baby bottles and sippy cups—a small first step–but in the past few years coalitions have formed to address the health consequences of other pesticides. To wit, six months ago, in March 2012, the Arysta LifeScience Corporation agreed to stop dumping methyl iodide on California’s strawberries fields. The concession followed an unprecedented campaign by the United Farm Workers and environmental and reproductive health groups to publicize the dangers the chemical poses for human reproduction.

While all agree that Atrazine may be a tougher nut to crack—it has been used since 1958—mounting evidence of the havoc it causes cannot be ignored. The onus, however, is on us to do extensive outreach, bringing together a broad cross-section of people to demand safe workplaces, safe food, and safe conditions for conception. Time is surely of the essence.

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To schedule an interview with Eleanor J. Bader please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • weeds-network

    I think this is an important article and the sources are well researched.  One thing though, given the health effects outlined and accepted (by me at least), the statement that atrazine is “inexpensive” is not correct.  What is perhaps meant is that the cost of the health effects caused by atrazine can currently be pushed to government and the taxpayer to pick up.  This is why atrazine can appear to be ‘cheap’, that is if we ‘buy’ the boundary of the issue as being limited in the manner presently accepted as being ok.  When rivers are treated as industrial drains, this enables people to use chemicals without having to pay for the health consequences. 

    I also would like to point out that herbicides are completely unnecessary (therefore 100% waste).  There are a wide range of healthy ways to deal with weeds … for example, we can feed them to livestock, or we can plant cover crops to crowd them out, or we can use compost, to mention just a few of the techniques we research and advocate at The Weed’s Network. 

    Regards, Dr David Low, Manager