NRDC Calls for Investigation of Possible Cover-Up by Atrazine Manufacturer

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 27 Jan 2003
Time: 22:32:54
Remote Name:


New Studies Confirm Dangers of Atrazine, a Widely Used Agricultural Weed-Killer NRDC calls for investigation of possible cover-up by atrazine manufacturer. It's the nation's most widely used weed-killer, applied liberally by farmers throughout the Midwest. But according to two new studies, it's not safe. One study shows that atrazine, sprayed heavily on corn as well as other crops, causes sexual abnormalities in frogs. The other study found that the herbicide is linked to high rates of prostate cancer among workers at an atrazine production plant. Almost as disturbing, the largest manufacturer of atrazine, a Swiss-owned firm named Syngenta -- formed by the 2000 merger of Novartis and Zeneca -- may have illegally suppressed the studies' findings.

The frog study became public only after the scientist doing the research ended his contract with Syngenta and conducted his experiment independently. Syngenta itself conducted the second study at its Louisiana manufacturing plant. But after collecting data that suggests a link between atrazine and prostate cancer among its own workers, the company apparently kept the information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for years. Last summer, NRDC learned of the study and blew the whistle, informing the EPA. Now NRDC is calling for the EPA to launch a criminal investigation of Syngenta's possible cover-up and take atrazine off the market. A Poison in Our Midst? Atrazine is the most widely used herbicide in the United States, with more than 60 million pounds applied annually. Corn farmers in the Midwest apply much of that tonnage, which works its way into local waterways and spreads throughout the Mississippi River basin. Millions of Americans drink atrazine in their tap water, often at peak levels during the spring, when farmers apply it to their fields.

Atrazine-poisoned water is not limited to the Midwest, however. The chemical is found in drinking water across the country, in part because it is transported by rain and fog. Past studies have built a strong case that atrazine is unsafe for humans. Some of these studies have found that the herbicide disrupts the production of normal human hormones, and others have concluded that it is associated with a higher incidence of cancer in both humans and laboratory animals. Several European countries, including France, Germany and Italy, have banned atrazine. Farmers there use safer alternatives, as do many in the United States. The U.S. EPA, however, has not followed suit. To the contrary, the agency permits atrazine levels in drinking water to rise and fall over the course of the year, so long as the yearly average remains below 3 parts per billion. But seasonal spikes are often much higher. Even more troubling, in June 2000, the EPA Scientific Advisory Panel voted to recommend that atrazine be reclassified as "not likely" to be a human carcinogen, or that there is "not enough information to classify." In doing so, the panel contradicted EPA career scientists, who had recommended that atrazine be classified as a "likely" human carcinogen. Among the cited reasons for the recommendation: "limited data were available for review."

For a number of years before the EPA panel's debate over atrazine and cancer, workers at Syngenta's atrazine production facility in St. Gabriel, La., were getting prostate cancer at 3½ times the region's average rate. The company apparently did not report these cancers to the EPA until it submitted a study of its workers late last year. In addition, Tyrone Hayes, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, found that frogs exposed to low levels of atrazine were suffering from severe sexual deformities. Had the EPA panel known the results of these two studies, it likely would have reached a different conclusion about atrazine's dangers. The EPA is expected to rule on atrazine's status as early as August 2002. Dr. Hayes's research demonstrates that atrazine causes serious sexual abnormalities in male frogs exposed to the pesticide at levels commonly found in rivers, streams and even rain. Dr. Hayes published his findings in the April 16, 2002, edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, after finding that 16 percent to 20 percent of male frogs developed sexual deformities when their tank water contained atrazine at 0.1 parts per billion. The deformities included having both ovaries and testes, and testes containing eggs in addition to sperm.

The EPA's tap water standard for atrazine is 3 parts per billion -- 30 times higher than the level at which these dramatic results occurred. In subsequent field research, Dr. Hayes and his team found similar abnormalities in wild frogs in the Midwest living in atrazine-contaminated rivers and streams. Dr. Hayes initially received funding from Syngenta, but he conducted the research for his published study independently of the company. Cancer in Humans Syngenta's Workers Sue A number of workers at the St. Gabriel facility have sued Syngenta, alleging that working in an atrazine-laced environment caused them to develop prostate cancer. Their claims are remarkable. One worker says that he "worked 'eyeball' deep in the powder [atrazine]" and recalls instances of employees "eating meals in areas covered with atrazine dust." Another worker recalls his supervisors telling him that "atrazine could be eaten without any adverse health effects." In the summer of 2001, NRDC learned that Syngenta had been tracking cases of prostate cancer in employees at its St. Gabriel atrazine plant. Only after NRDC alerted the EPA to this inquiry did Syngenta submit the results to the agency. The study's most significant finding is that Syngenta employees have markedly elevated incidence rates of prostate cancer -- a rate more than 3½ times higher than the Louisiana statewide average. In all, the study identified 17 prostate cancer cases. Among long-time employees, the study revealed 11 prostate cancer victims, nine-fold higher than the expected number (1.2) based on the statewide prostate cancer rate.

As of September 2001 -- before Syngenta submitted this new study -- the company had reported only six cases of prostate cancer in connection with atrazine, according to the EPA. But substantial evidence, including documents apparently created by the company, indicates that Syngenta knew of many, if not all, of the 17 prostate cancer cases at St. Gabriel by the end of 1999. Likewise, it appears -- based on EPA documents -- that a Syngenta-sponsored team of academics knew about the sexual deformities in atrazine-exposed frogs long before the published results, yet the company did not report these findings to the EPA in time for the Scientific Advisory Panel's debate.

At the minimum, Syngenta's handling of the new scientific evidence is suspicious, and it may be illegal. It appears that much of the prostate cancer information was available to Syngenta when international and domestic scientific inquiries were under way to determine whether atrazine is a carcinogen, and Syngenta did not provide the relevant agencies with significant prostate cancer information. The company may have violated a federal law requiring pesticide manufacturers to promptly report adverse effects of their chemicals. Deliberate violations of this requirement are subject to criminal penalties.

Time to Take Action Having played an important role in bringing the research to light, NRDC is now following up by calling on the EPA to reconsider its evaluation of atrazine's health threat -- a decision reached on the basis of incomplete information. On the strength of these new studies and past studies with similarly disturbing findings, the product should be banned from the market. In addition, NRDC is calling on Syngenta to hand over to the EPA and make public any other data it may have on atrazine's health effects. Finally, Syngenta's apparent efforts to suppress the data may have been illegal, even criminal. Accordingly, NRDC is calling for a federal investigation of the company's compliance -- or noncompliance -- with reporting requirements.

Last changed: March 14, 2006