Class action suits and proposed task force could choke out atrazine

Ann Knef Mar. 2, 2006, 10:17am

Alex Avery

State Sen. John Cullerton

If product liability claims against major chemical companies prevail and state legislators attempt to restrict the most commonly applied herbicide used by corn growers, Illinois agriculture is in trouble.

In Madison County, six class action lawsuits pending against the makers of atrazine -- namely Sygenta, Drexel, Dow, United Agri Products, Supcan Agro and Makhteshinm Agan -- allege that atrazine breaks down into "degradant" chemicals which are hazardous to humans. Plaintiff Holiday Shores Sanitary District, one of nearly 1,800 water districts in the state, wants to be fitted with a new charcoal system to filter out atrazine, among other big demands.

In Chicago, out of cornfield voters' reach, a state senator is asking that a task force be created to study the effects of atrazine on human health. Atrazine exists in allowable trace amounts in many of the state's and nation's drinking supplies.

A scientist and farm bureau spokesman say there is no merit to allegations that atrazine is hazardous to humans.

"We've known for 500 years that toxicity is not molecule specific," said physiologist Alex Avery, director of research and education with the Center for Global Food Issues at Hudson Institute in Virginia.

"Water will kill you," he said pointing to marathon runners who have keeled over after over-consuming water at the finish line. "Anything is toxic in a high enough dose."

Avery said there is no data to support claims that atrazine is hazardous to human health.

"The science is non existent," he said. "Atrazine risk profile is stellar."

Atrazine is the number one seasonal contaminant in surface drinking supplies in the nation, Avery said. But it is allowed. It shows up in low levels in surface water in the spring and summer after farmers apply it to kill weeds rather than plowing weeds.

The allowable level in drinking water is three parts per billion, a standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"That's like one second in 32 years; one inch in 16,000 miles or one penny in $1 million," Avery said.

"The EPA just finished its re-review and said there is no undo ecological or human health risk," Avery said.

Avery said that the widespread use of atrazine in agriculture developed in the 1970s during the energy crisis. Atrazine proved a worthy no-till herbicide. Plowing, which requires a lot of fuel, is mainly done to get rid of weeds.

"Spraying cut fuel costs," Avery said.

There are other conservation benefits to no-till farming, such as improved soil structure, porosity and holding capacity, he said.

According to an article in the Corn and Soybean Digest, the U.S. EPA estimates that U.S. farmers would need to spend an additional $28 per acre to retain current yield levels if the product wasn't available for weed control. The report also states that atrazine, which is found in at least 140 pesticides, is applied on 75 percent of the nation's corn fields.

In July 2004, Holiday Shores Sanitary District filed six class action lawsuits against the atrazine makers, claiming the product is hazardous to human health if it consumed in any amounts.

Represented by Courtney Buxner and Stephen Tillery of KoreinTillery in St. Louis, as well as Baron & Budd of Dallas, Texas, the lawsuits allege atrazine can cause cancer and reproductive problems in humans.

The lawsuits cite studies, including one that shows serious effects on the sexual organs of frogs, and another one that shows parents working in areas of high pesticide application have increased risk of "adverse reproductive outcomes."

In a report "...Myths Surrounding Frog Deformities and Amphibian Declines," Avery wrote:

"Over the past decade, tens of millions of dollars have been spent looking for the offending chemical or chemicals involved in the amphibian declines. Yet time after time, no evidence has been found that pesticides are involved. Four high-profile case studies show how scant the evidence against pesticides is, as well as the deep bias of the ecological research community."

Nancy Erickson, director of Natural Resources for the Illinois Farm Bureau, said her organization was aware of the pending litigation in Madison County and is "concerned" about it.

However, the Farm Bureau has no official position on a resolution introduced by State Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago), that calls for a six-member panel to report its findings on the potential adverse effects of atrazine to the General Assembly by Dec. 31.

"It's up to the General Assembly to study issues," she said. "How can you oppose a study?"

Erickson said atrazine, which is employed primarily by corn growers, has been used in the state for years and is the best no-till product. It helps conserve farm fields by preventing sediment run-off. It increases yields, reduces costs and is proven good for the environment.

She said that the U.S. EPA has thoroughly evaluated atrazine using a detailed scientific process.

"It's probably the most well-studied chemical," Erickson said. "It seems like these lawsuits fly in the face of the EPA."

She said the Farm Bureau "would be concerned" if the decision on atrazine's safety was taken away from scientific experts and given to non-scientists in a courtroom.

The resolution introduced by Cullerton, a trial lawyer, reads somewhat like the lawsuits filed in Madison County.

"Most people are routinely exposed to this chemical without their knowledge or consent," reads SR0593.

"There is currently no domestic well monitoring program in the State of Illinois, leaving citizens who drink water from private wells at risk for exposure to atrazine levels above the 3 parts per billion (ppb) Maximimum Contamination Level (MCL) set by the EPA," resolution states.

It also states that the Minnesota legislature has already introduced several pieces of legislation to restrict or ban atrazine and to provide funding to test wells for atrazine.

"While information on the need for well testing has recently been produced by the Illinois EPA and the Illinois Department of Public Health, a passive approach to promoting this information has been taken, leaving many citizens unaware of the need for regular well testing," the resolution states.

"While human health problems caused by atrazine are still being researched, there is substantial research on the negative health effects atrazine causes in both wildlife and laboratory animals; and

"Because the State is one of the largest users of atrazine, Illinois residents are most at risk for any health problems caused by atrazine.

"It is in the best interest to the state of Illinois to be at teh forefront of a monitoring and regulatory effort to protect its citizens for the potential adverse effects of chronic atrazine exposure."

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