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Published February 01, 2010, 03:03 AM

The dangers of atrazine

ST. PAUL — During the past half-century, atrazine has become one of the most widely used herbicides in Minnesota and the rest of the Midwest.

By: Bonnie Haugen and Dennis Johnson,

ST. PAUL — During the past half-century, atrazine has become one of the most widely used herbicides in Minnesota and the rest of the Midwest.

Unfortunately, it also is top of the list in another category: It is the most commonly detected pesticide in Minnesota’s surface and groundwater.

Atrazine contamination has been found from agricultural communities in southeast Minnesota to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. That’s a concern when one considers that there is an increasing body of science showing that exposure to the herbicide at even extremely low levels could pose significant health risks to humans and animals.

That’s why it is key that the Environmental Protection Agency’s current review of atrazine’s safety be based on science and what’s good for the public.

Reported levels

A report released Jan. 5 by the Land Stewardship Project and Pesticide Action Network North America documents Syngenta’s efforts to undermine what was supposed to be a thorough, transparent regulatory review of atrazine earlier this decade.

The report, “The Syngenta Corporation & Atrazine: The Cost to the Land, People & Democracy,” documents how the EPA review process that led to atrazine’s U.S. re-approval in 2003 was marred by closed-door meetings involving the Syngenta corporation and EPA officials.

That review also was characterized by a lack of independent research and suppression of science that showed significant health and environmental problems associated with the herbicide.

The current EPA review of atrazine was launched in October and will continue until fall 2010. This review is a chance for EPA to get it right and to use science in the public’s best interest.

Getting attention

One way to get it right is for government decision-makers, as well as the public, to ignore claims that atrazine is an irreplaceable corn production tool.

As the report shows, farmers in Minnesota are raising corn without the controversial herbicide, as are farmers in the European Union, where atrazine is banned.

And Wisconsin remains a top corn producing state despite some of the toughest atrazine restrictions in the nation. Farmers are too innovative to allow one production tool to limit their choices when it comes to raising a crop.

The LSP-PAN report does not call for an outright ban of atrazine or any other herbicide. Many LSP farmer-members use pesticides in their cropping operations. But that means they rely on the EPA to use a transparent process when registering pesticides, one that is guided by science and focuses on protection of human health and the environment as well as production considerations.

It’s time for an objective examination of atrazine.

The current review of atrazine should set a standard for decision-making in the interest of farmers and the public by, among other things, ensuring 100 percent transparency. That means no closed-door meetings and making all studies that are considered part of the review open to scientific and public scrutiny.

Critical data should not be hidden from the public or from independent scientific examination by claiming it’s “confidential business information.” Peer review is the gold standard for scientific publication and should be a critical element in re-examination of atrazine.

Unfair reviews

Finally, studies funded by Syngenta should not dominate the review. As the LSP/PAN report documents, the corporation has engaged in undue influence on the atrazine registration process in the past.

Assertions that studies the corporation submitted during the past review process were deeply flawed, and thus hampered sound decision-making, should be taken seriously.

We have strong concerns about how, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, Syngenta has continued to promote atrazine as completely safe. Because atrazine is such a major source of profit for Syngenta, the corporation has a major conflict of interest when it comes to this review. The problem is exacerbated by inadequate funding for independent scientific evaluation of products considered by the EPA for approval or post-approval review.

The safety of rural Minnesota’s drinking water should not be sacrificed for the sake of profit.

That’s why, if after review the science indicates atrazine is a threat to health and/or the environment, the EPA must take swift and clear action to protect farmers and the public. The people who produce our food deserve at least that.

“The Syngenta Corporation & Atrazine: The Cost to the Land, People & Democracy” is available at www.landstewardshipproject.org.

Editor’s Note: Haugen is a Canton, Minn., farmer and a member of the Land Stewardshop Project’s board of directors. Johnson, a member of LSP’s state policy committee, is an agricultural scientist at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.