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EPA Fails to Inform Public About Weed Killer in Drinking Water, Huffington Post Investigation Reveals

StoryAugust 25, 2009
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Danielle Ivory

staff reporter at the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.

An investigation by the Huffington Post reveals the Environmental Protection Agency knew that one of the country’s most widely used herbicides exceeds federal safety limits in four states but failed to inform residents of the associated dangers. The Huffington Post discovered that the EPA has been collecting data that shows people are drinking water laced with high levels of a weed killer known as atrazine but did not publish the data. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We move on now to our last segment, also involving an investigation by the Huffington Post. Sharif?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s right. We turn to an investigation that reveals the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, knew that one of the country’s most widely used herbicides exceeds federal safety limits in four states but failed to inform residents of the associated dangers. The Huffington Post Investigative Fund discovered that the EPA has been collecting data that shows people are drinking water laced with high levels of a weed killer known as atrazine but did not publish the data.

The Huffington Post tracked the amount of atrazine in 150 watersheds across ten states between 2003 and 2008 using records obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request. Analysts found that over the past five years, the annual average levels of atrazine in drinking water violated the federal standard on at least ten occasions in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kansas, states where farmers rely heavily on this weed killer.

EPA officials did not dispute the data but told the Huffington Post they did not consider atrazine a health hazard. This is Steve Bradbury, deputy office director of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs.

    STEVEN BRADBURY: We have undertaken the research and evaluated the science and made very careful risk assessment decisions, including external advice from scientists outside EPA, that we have concluded that atrazine does not cause adverse effects to humans or the environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the National Resources Defense Council also released a report Monday on how the EPA has ignored atrazine contamination. The authors argue, quote, “the EPA relied on a fatally flawed analytical method to conclude that there was no cause for concern.”

For more on this story, we’re joined now by a staff reporter at the Huffington Post Investigative Fund who broke their story on the EPA’s atrazine cover-up. Danielle Ivory joins us from Washington, DC.

Danielle, welcome to Democracy Now! Lay out the scope of the problem. What’s in the water we drink?

DANIELLE IVORY: Well, what we found was that the — over the last five years, in about 150 cities in ten states, but very extensively in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas and Ohio, the EPA was collecting data tracking this weed killer called atrazine in people’s drinking water on a weekly basis during the growing season, when atrazine is being applied to primarily corn fields, but also to other major crops.

What we found through this Freedom of Information request was that the levels of atrazine were very high, sometimes even exceeding the federal safety limits. But the EPA was not required to report this under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is a federal law which is based on the premise that people have the right to know what’s in their drinking water. So, unfortunately, people were not notified.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you write that in more than forty water systems, they showed spikes in the levels of this herbicide, yet the public was not informed. Why not?

DANIELLE IVORY: Well, what’s very important to understand here is that there are two — basically two types of testing of atrazine in the United States. There’s state testing, and then there’s this special program set up by the EPA.

In the state testing, it’s very infrequent. And this is all around the country, they test up to four times a year, but sometimes as infrequently as once a year or maybe not at all. Those results have to be reported to the public. It’s required that the public know what was the highest level of atrazine that was detected according to those infrequent test results.

On the other hand, the EPA, in 2003, as a condition of re-registering atrazine, asked the makers of atrazine, Syngenta, to perform more extensive testing in about 150 cities. It’s a very small sample. We don’t have very much data, in fact. In those cities, they found very high levels, because they were testing on a weekly basis during the growing season, but they were not required to report those results, because the Safe Drinking Water Act only requires legally that you have to report the state results. So this was perfectly legal, but they — but unfortunately, the public was really misled on the level of atrazine in their drinking water.

So, for example, there is a small town called McClure in Ohio. And during this last year, the city of McClure reported to the public that the highest level of atrazine in their drinking water was 3.4 parts per billion. The EPA found that the highest level in their drinking water was thirty-three parts per billion, which is much higher than 3.4 parts per billion. This is a problem of not telling the public what’s in their drinking water.

AMY GOODMAN: Danielle, talk about what is in this very commonly used, widely used herbicide. What is in atrazine? Or, most importantly, what effect does it have on human beings? What effect does it have on animals? Why are you concerned?

DANIELLE IVORY: Well, it’s not exactly known what the effects of atrazine are. It’s very difficult to know these things, because it is highly unethical to test atrazine on human beings, especially on developing human beings, fetuses and young children. There are animal and rodent models that do point to possible carcinogenic or endocrine effects. The EPA does list it as a possible endocrine disruptor.

What I found helpful, I talked to a scientist, Dr. Shanna Swan at the University of Rochester, who was one of the first people who did an epidemiological study on atrazine with a small sample of people. And what she told me is it’s very important, if you’re a woman and you become pregnant in June, that you know what the levels of the herbicide in your drinking water are in June, not in March or in January. That’s when that level is going to be important to the fetus developing in your womb.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is very significant. You also cite studies in frogs, frogs turning hermaphroditic after exposure to atrazine, is that right? And the European Union banning atrazine because it was consistently showing up in drinking water, and health officials said they couldn’t find sufficient evidence that the chemical was safe? But the frogs?

DANIELLE IVORY: Yes. Well, so those are two separate — separate instances.

AMY GOODMAN: I put them together because we only have thirty-five seconds.

DANIELLE IVORY: Oh, OK. Well, in the European Union, they base their regulation on the precautionary principle, which is very different from the United States. So, basically, in Europe, a chemical is guilty until proven innocent. You have to have substantial evidence backing up safe consumption of that product. In the United States, a chemical is really innocent until proven guilty, and the burden of proof is not on the chemical company itself, but on the EPA and independent scientists to prove that it is unsafe.

AMY GOODMAN: And the frogs?

DANIELLE IVORY: Oh, and the frogs. Well, that was a study by Tyrone Hayes in the early 2000s. What Mr. Hayes found was that frogs exposed to atrazine were becoming hermaphroditic. Male frogs were turning into female frogs, sometimes growing eggs in their testicles. This was significant, because he found that frogs were having — were experiencing these hormonal changes at very low levels of atrazine, 0.1 parts per billion, which is much, much less than the EPA limit, which is three parts per billion.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Danielle Ivory, I want to thank you for your investigation, staff reporter at the Huffington Post Investigative Fund. We will link to your report at

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