Dear Scott Pruitt: Is this Atrazine’s DDT moment?

Dear Mr. Pruitt, I imagine there must be some angst these days about Atrazine.  With the 2016 EPA reevaluation concluding that the herbicide isn’t as safe as we all once thought, I am sure growers and consumers are anxious about which way the agency will swing: to ban or not to ban.  Admittedly, back in the waning days of 2016 it looked like the herbicide was destined to be dumped, but things are different now.

pesticide use map

USGS Esimated use of Atrazine

With the use of the top-selling, billion dollar chemical already curtailed nearly a decade ago in Europe (including Syngenta’s home country of Switzerland) and Atrazine popping up in drinking water (it is the most commonly detected pesticide, particularly in corn country) no wonder there is so much angst over your agency’s recent 2016 evaluation. It makes us look a decade or so behind the times.

But, I get it. This is a tough one. Growers have used the herbicide for over fifty years. Now they use some 70 million pounds on corn, sorghum, sugar and other crops each year. And Syngenta would certainly take a hit. Which probably explains why they’ve spent plenty (particularly in D.C.) to ensure that it remains a top seller here the U.S. This includes funds for the research and writing efforts of the so-called “Atrazine Benefits Team,” whose series of studies claim that the herbicide not only saves of tens of thousands of jobs but also millions of tons of soil by knocking back weeds chemically, reducing the need to till the soil. And, for nearly half a century, it did seem to be all good.

roadside atrazine Until those damn frog studies. The studies that showed that Atrazine could chemically castrate frogs and amplify the amphibian’s feminine tendencies. There are now hundreds of studies that not only confirm these findings, but indicate that the chemical impacts species across Nature’s kingdom. As your agency recently concluded:  Atrazine, as used, poses a risk not only to amphibians but also to fish and birds and mammals. (The evaluation didn’t even mention that other issue: resistance. Currently over half the problem weeds for corn now resist death by herbicide.) This is, possibly, Atrazine’s DDT moment.

And like DDT there is plenty of push back. Syngenta claims that that there is “no substitute.” But a different analysis concludes that without Atrazine, corn growers, might enjoy an increase in farm revenues (with only pennies in cost passed on to us consumers). I know I’d pay a few pennies more if it meant one less contaminant in the drinking water of my fellow citizens in the Midwest.

When EPA considered banning DDT Monsanto monsanto-desolate-springwas so concerned for us all that they dreamed up a “Desolate Year.”  A story about a country without its miracle pesticide, plagued by insects overrun by rats and mice, and bereft of fruits and vegetables. But EPA went ahead and banned the pesticide and you and I grew up in times of plenty — without DDT. Granted it was replaced with other pesticides, but these days there are increasingly innovative options for replacing chemical herbicides.

I know your staff has been wading through tens of thousands of public comments from concerned citizens, lobbyists and growers; I don’t envy them. There are letters from citizens concerned about the herbicide in their food and water; and the effects on wildlife. And letters from industry lobbyists and farmers urged by the agro-industry to “Tell EPA to follow their own high science standards.” (Which is ironic, because those high science standards are what led to this recent conclusion.) The old “we’ve been using it for fifty years without a hitch,” seems to be a popular rationale for keeping the status quo.

But the rationale of unobserved effects just doesn’t cut these days, given the weight of evidence generated over the past couple of decades. (You know, the old absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence argument.) There are a lot of things you can do for fifty years like smoking or burning fossil fuel- but that doesn’t mean they are without consequences.

So please, Mr. Pruitt, go ahead and apply those high science standards and consider the conclusion of your own agency. Maybe like DDT, Atrazine’s time on the farm has passsed.

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