One of the most thoroughly studied products used in agriculture has received yet another clean bill of health.
A report issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency June 21 concluded that the cumulative risks associated with triazine herbicides pose "no harm that would result to the general U.S. population, infants, children or other...consumers."
That's good news for farmers, especially in Illinois. Atrazine (a triazine compound) is the most commonly used herbicide by corn growers, favored for reducing erosion and runoff, as well as being cost-effective.
Atrazine also is the number one seasonal contaminant found in surface drinking supplies in the nation. It usually shows up in low levels 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. EPA.
While farmers and consumers should be relieved by the latest study, the information could spell trouble for a slew of Madison County class action lawsuits filed in 2004.
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 can cause cancer and reproductive problems in humans.
The lawsuits, brought by attorneys Courtney Buxner and Stephen Tillery of KoreinTillery in St. Louis, as well as Baron & Budd of Dallas, Texas, have sat idle since last year when defendants argued motions to dismiss before Circuit Judge Daniel Stack.
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 demands. Several years ago Holiday Shores was fined by the EPA for exceeding the allowable amount of atrazine in its water supply.
The recent EPA finding reconfirms a favorable safety review of atrazine published in 2003.
An in-house attorney for Syngenta Crop Protection said he hopes the latest revelation strengthens the conpany's legal position.
"It certainly adds meat to the defense," said Alan Nadel, litigation counsel for Syngenta in Greensboro, N.C., who argued for dismissing the lawsuits.
Nadel said he and other defense lawyers are simply waiting for a ruling from Stack.
"Judge Stack is a very busy judge," he said.
Nancy Erickson, director of Natural Resources for the Illinois Farm Bureau, said her organization was aware of the pending litigation in Madison County and was "concerned" about it, during an interview earlier this year.
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.
A scientist employed by the Center for Global Food Issues at Hudson Institute in Virginia stated that the risk profile of atrazaine is "stellar."
Alex Avery, director of the organizations's research and education division, said that there is no data to support claims that atrazine is hazardous to human health.
"The science is non-existent," he said.
"We've known for 500 years that toxicity is not molecule specific," said Avery.
"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."