The federal Environmental Protection Agency says a new review of atrazine, a commonly used agricultural pesticide, is rooted in a statutory mandate and prompted by new evidence about the effects of the pesticide to humans and animals.
But one of the makers of the pesticide, Syngenta, calls the review "redundant" and say studies that conclude the pesticide is harmful are "bogus." The company says the new review is nothing more than "an unprecedented war on agriculture by anti-pesticide activists."
"EPA has stated that activist pressure and media reports prompted this unplanned evaluation of atrazine, which was re-registered in 2006 after a rigorous and transparent science review," said Sherry Ford, spokeswoman for Syngenta.
"EPA considered more than 6,000 studies over a 12-year period when it re-registered atrazine, yet the re-review has more scientific scrutiny in play: an unprecedented four Scientific Advisory Panel meetings in the space of 11 months, with the likelihood of more to follow. All this, when a previously-scheduled, and much more considered, EPA science review of atrazine will occur in 2013."
Other critics say the new review is because Democrats now control the White House, giving the EPA an activist flair with freshman administrator Lisa P. Jackson at the helm.
"We believe she is cooperating with, if not spearheading, a broad-based activist agenda to implement an official anti-chemical approach which has no basis in protecting anyone's health, nor do anything measurable or perceptible for the environment, but is designed to promote a political anti-chemical, anti-business agenda," said Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health, a group devoted to consumer education. The group has been outspoken on the attack on atrazine.
Still, the EPA contends its reasoning is scientific and influenced by an interest in public health.
The agency said in a statement: "Given the sizeable body of new scientific information as well as the documented presence of atrazine in both drinking water sources and other bodies of water, the agency determined it appropriate to consider the new research, including inviting independent scientific peer review, to ensure that our regulatory decisions on atrazine are protective of public health and the environment."
The agency spokesman who provided the statement did not want to be identified. The agency did not detail what "new scientific information" the agency was using to validate the new study.
But even the EPA is denouncing some such studies. One study, by Dr. Paul Winchester of the Indiana University School of Medicine, has been called "questionable" by the EPA, according to Syngenta.
According to the company's literature, Winchester concluded that a variation of birth defects in children conceived in June might point to the use of atrazine on corn crops around that time of year.
"He makes the claim without any scientific link to back up his assertion, and admits that freely," the company said in a news release. "The study has absolutely no basis in science as other environmental effects in June, such as the summer sun, may be just as likely to cause birth defects, if you use Dr. Winchester's logic."
In addition to controlling weeds on corn crops, the pesticide is commonly used on sorghum and sugar cane, the company says. The pesticide has been in use for 50 years.
Syngenta, while denouncing Dr. Winchester's study, hints that the EPA's decision to review again the pesticide may have its roots in a campaign by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The council describes itself as "the nation's most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.3 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists and other professionals."
The council recently declared that a 2009 analysis by the council of surface and drinking water monitoring data showed "pervasive contamination of watersheds and drinking water systems across the Midwest and Southern United States."
The council further criticized the EPA's regulation and monitoring of the pesticide as "weak" and "inadequate."
"Given the pesticide's limited usefulness and the ease with which safer agricultural methods can be substituted to achieve similar results, NRDC recommends phasing out the use of atrazine, more effective atrazine monitoring, the adoption of farming techniques that can help minimize the use of atrazine and prevent it from running into waterways," the council said in a news release.
According to a 2009 New York Times article reporting on the EPA's decision to re-review the pesticide, the council had sued the agency in 2003 claiming that the agency ignored atrazine's alleged harmful affects to some animals.
Syngenta summarily calls the council's campaign "slick" and "well-funded."
In announcing the re-review, Steve Owens, assistant administrator for the agency's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances said: "One of Administrator Jackson's top priorities is to improve the way EPA manages and assesses the risk of chemicals, including pesticides, and as part of that effort, we are taking a hard look at the decision made by the previous administration on atrazine."
Owens added that the review would be "based on transparency and sound science."
The agency maintains that its oversight of atrazine "has always been dynamic, not static."
The review is expected to be completed by 2011, at which time the agency will ask an independent panel established by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act to review the findings.
In its statement to Legal Newsline, the agency said: "If, as a result of the ongoing review, EPA finds that atrazine poses risks of concern that require additional mitigation, the agency would seek public input in developing updated benefits assessments for atrazine uses and consider this information in developing any new risk management decisions for atrazine."
In addition to the ongoing re-review of atrazine, a series of proposed class action lawsuits are pending in the Midwest against the makers of the pesticide. The lawsuits were filed on behalf of local water systems by attorneys Stephen Tillery of Korein Tillery in St. Louis and co-counsel Baron and Budd of Dallas.
Both firms tout themselves as consumer advocates.
Tillery won a $10 billion case against tobacco maker Philip Morris in Madison County in 2003, a verdict that was later overturned.
Baron and Budd claims toxic tort litigation is the cornerstone of its practice.
The maximum contaminant level for atrazine in drinking water is 3 parts for billion. The agency said a review of drinking water data reported by the states last year showed no community water systems were in violation of that level.