EPA Refuses to Ban
Dangerous Pesticide

The New York Times
June 2, 2002

New Study Adds to Debate on E.P.A. Rules for Pesticide


The Environmental Protection Agency is embroiled in several fierce legal
and scientific debates as it struggles to write new rules governing the
use of atrazine, one of the nation's most widely used pesticides.

The chemical, used to banish weeds from cornfields in the Midwest and
residential lawns in the Southeast, and for many other purposes, has
been linked in studies to cancer in humans and to deformities in frogs
that caused them to grow both testes and ovaries. It is banned in some
European countries. Now, the environmental agency acknowledges that the
newly published research on frogs may force it to seek an extension of a
court-ordered August deadline for issuing the rules.

Atrazine's major manufacturer, Syngenta AG of Switzerland, now says it
will offer studies of its own to refute the frog research, and it
continues to challenge many of the agency's findings as being too
cautious. But environmental groups are making just the opposite claim:
that the agency is not being cautious enough.

Complicating matters further, a lawsuit against the company brought by
factory workers who say they got prostate cancer after being exposed to
the chemical has provided new ammunition for critics challenging the
agency's decision two years ago to remove atrazine from its list of
substances that probably cause cancer in humans.

One such group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, says it will file
a petition with the E.P.A. and the Justice Department on Monday asking
that the chemical be banned and that the company be investigated for not
promptly disclosing the workplace cancers, as required by law.

"I think that the E.P.A. has missed the boat on the cancer assessment
completely, because they did not have available important information
about its links to cancer," said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at
the council, an advocacy group that specializes in litigation to enforce
environmental laws.

Ms. Sass said that if the agency had recognized those links, "there
would be no safe levels" for atrazine's use.

Syngenta, which is the largest agribusiness company in the world,
dismisses that argument. Tim Pastoor, who is in charge of global risk
assessment for the company, said, "The notion that anyone would want to
ban atrazine is silly." Mr. Pastoor said that scientific evidence proved
atrazine to be safe as currently used, and that the E.P.A., in its
current reviews, was being far too conservative in its scientific
approach. He said the reason so many workers at the company's factory
were found to have prostate cancer was simply that the company
intensively screens its workers for the disease.

The United States uses about 60 million pounds of atrazine a year, and
its traces are found in the water supplies of many communities. But in
preliminary reviews published this year, E.P.A. scientists suggest that
in most parts of the country people are not exposed to dangerous levels.
That finding makes an outright ban unlikely.

Still, the agency's top pesticide official, Stephen L. Johnson, said the
research on frogs raised new issues, and added, "Given these conflicting
results, we have to work through it."

The agency's critics say its scientific methods are fundamentally flawed
and violate two federal laws -- the Food Quality Protection Act and the
Safe Drinking Water Act -- that set strict standards and deadlines for
reviewing the safety of hundreds of pesticides and other widely used

Peter Lehner, chief of the environmental bureau in the New York State
attorney general's office, said the state would file comments this month
criticizing the agency's preliminary risk assessment and expressing
concerns that the agency is not doing enough to protect the public from
exposure. Public comments on the preliminary assessment are due by July

"Legally, our concern is a pattern of E.P.A. disregarding the science
and the legal mandates of the federal statutes," said Mr. Lehner, adding
that traces of the weedkiller had been found in 40 percent of the
state's water supplies, 50 percent of those in Suffolk County and 75
percent of those in farming areas of the Hudson River valley.

Critics of atrazine cite scientific evidence that infants and children
may be especially vulnerable to developmental problems or to cancer if
they or their nursing mothers are exposed even to relatively small
amounts for a short time, as when spring rains wash the chemicals from
newly tilled fields.

Syngenta replies that the data on atrazine offer "reasonable certainty,"
as the law requires, that infants and children would suffer "no harm"
from exposure to it. "The data clearly show that developing organisms
are less sensitive than adults are to atrazine," Mr. Pastoor said.

The agency's health scientists, though, rejected that argument. Rather,
while finding that in general most drinking water supplies appear safe,
they identified dozens of towns, mostly in the Midwest, where infant
exposures appeared likely to have exceeded their safety threshold. The
towns were identified because in one year or another, seasonal rains had
washed high levels of the chemical into streams, lakes and reservoirs
used to supply drinking water.

The agency's deliberations are especially complex because they are based
on experiments with laboratory animals that imperfectly model the way
chemicals like atrazine affect humans. Syngenta has been highly critical
of the agency's use of the animal studies.

In the latest research to cause a stir, Tyrone B. Hayes, a scientist who
had previously conducted research for the company that makes atrazine
but who now works independently, has found that male frogs developed
serious abnormalities after being exposed in his laboratory to levels of
the pesticide much lower than the E.P.A. considers safe in drinking
water. Significant numbers of the frogs developed both male and female
reproductive organs, a finding that he suggested might help explain
declines in amphibian species around the world. His work was published
in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although several field studies have found associations between exposure
to atrazine and similar pesticides and elevated incidence of several
kinds of cancer, that kind of study alone does not prove cause and
effect. The claims by workers that the chemical gave them cancer are
also hard to prove. Syngenta argues that the evidence of cancer among
its workers was detected simply because the company provides complete
screening for its work force.

Its studies on the workers' cancers were made public only recently, as a
result of the litigation and of pressure on the E.P.A. by the Natural
Resources Defense Council, which learned of the studies from lawyers for
the workers.

Syngenta found that in the last several years 17 employees and contract
workers, mostly at its plant in St. Gabriel, La., had developed prostate
cancer. The workers' lawyers and the environmental group say that is
much higher than should be expected, regardless of the screenings of

An internal E.P.A. review agreed with the company that screening "likely
accounts for most, if not all, of the observed increase." But the
E.P.A.'s scientists and two outside experts who examined the issue for
the agency all found severe shortcomings in the company's studies,
especially the lack of data provided on the exposure of workers to
atrazine. This is among the data that the environmental group is
demanding to have released.

While it collected and analyzed the evidence of prostate cancers in its
work force, the company argued for the E.P.A. to remove atrazine from
its list of chemicals that probably cause cancer. The E.P.A. took that
step in December 2000, and now lists atrazine as not likely to be a
carcinogen. If it were found to cause cancer, that would lead to much
tougher controls on its use, possibly even its removal from the market.

In making its decision, the E.P.A. found that while one strain of female
laboratory rats got ovarian and mammarian cancer after exposure to
atrazine, the biological mechanism was not applicable to humans. In the
rats, atrazine disrupted the hypothalamus, a part of the brain, and the
pituitary gland, a regulatory organ at the base of the brain that
excretes hormones. The hormonal disruption put the rats' reproductive
cycles in overdrive, causing their reproductive organs to age

But the E.P.A.'s scientists did not discount the likelihood that any
chemical that disrupts the hypothalamus, pituitary and gonads in one
animal species would also cause problems in other species, whether frogs
or people.

One study of rats, for example, demonstrated that atrazine disrupted a
mother rat's production of prolactin, a hormone involved in nursing, and
that a suckling newborn male rat's development could, in turn, be
affected, leading to prostatitis, a noncancerous inflammation of the
prostate glad. Another showed that exposing young rats to the chemical
could delay the onset of puberty. Taken together, many such studies
raise the possibility that the chemical could be harmful to infants and
children, even though no single study has demonstrated that outright.

While Syngenta has submitted evidence discounting one by one many of the
studies considered by the E.P.A., the agency's critics say that approach
misses the point. With so many studies raising a variety of concerns,
they say, the agency should consider them in their totality and take the
weedkiller off the market.

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