- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 31 (UPI) — The Environmental Protection Agency announced tighter restrictions and a more intensive water monitoring program Friday to protect Americans from a common herbicide known to cause hormonal abnormalities in animals.

The agency's new measures include more intensive water sampling to detect potentially harmful levels of atrazine, an herbicide that controls weeds by blocking their photosynthesis.

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The tests will involve weekly sampling of water during the growing season, when herbicide use is the highest, and bi-weekly sampling during the off-season. If atrazine is detected above safety levels, particularly among eight watershed systems judged to be most vulnerable, the herbicide's use will be "forever" prohibited in that specific watershed, said Stephen L. Johnson, EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances.

The EPA's actions, Johnson said, "will better protect people (and) today's action does not change or lower the standard of the Safe Drinking Water Act," which became law in 1974.

This agreement was reached with Sygenta, an international company headquartered in Switzerland, the primary registrant of atrazine use in the United States. The EPA said Sygenta will be monitoring raw drinking water, or drinking water that has not yet been filtered for consumption, within these watershed systems. The costs of the monitoring therefore will fall to Sygenta, Johnson said, not the government.

Of approximately 10,000 community water systems in the United States, atrazine is a concern in about 3,600, Johnson said. Of these 3,600, about 200 water systems, serving more than 3.6 million people, have atrazine levels either approaching or exceeding safety standards.

Moreover, in eight of those systems, atrazine levels repeatedly have exceeded safety standards. The systems are located primarily in America's Corn Belt states — Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Kentucky — although one is in Louisiana.

Jennifer Sass, senior scientist for the environmentalist organization the National Resource Defense Council in Washington, said testing alone is not enough because today's filters cannot remove atrazine from drinking water.

"The EPA missed an opportunity to protect the community and the wildlife," Sass told United Press International. "I think it handed the job of regulating a chemical to the chemical industry."

Sass said although federal law determines that atrazine is unsafe in drinking water when it surpasses 3 parts per billion, the EPA will not cancel atrazine use in watersheds until it reaches 37.5 parts per billion in raw water over a 90 day period.

"They know right now a million people in the U.S. drink water that exceeds the legal standard and they won't even begin to do anything about it until (it rises to) 12 times the legal standard," Sass said.

The EPA established the maximum contaminant level of atrazine at 3 parts per billion in 1991, but the agency did not specify at what level it would initiate cancellation of atrazine use within a particular watershed. Maximum contaminant levels of atrazine are expected to come under review again toward the end of 2003, Johnson said.

"Atrazine is not a human carcinogen," Johnson said at a news conference. "Our concern for atrazine is (based on) its potential on hormonal effects observed in laboratory animals."

Atrazine was registered for public use in 1958 and 86 percent of that use is in corn crops, grown primarily in the Midwest. It also is used to suppress weeds among sugarcane and sorghum. Non-agricultural uses of atrazine — including lawn care, golf courses and residential yards, Christmas trees and landscaping — account for only 1 percent of the chemical's total use in the United States, Johnson said.

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