Is Atrazine Killing Kids - Or Saving Humanity
July 30, 1999
by Alex A. Avery
Is a pesticide called atrazine lurking in Indiana drinking water and causing cancer among the state's babies? Or is atrazine a harmless-to-humans weed killer which is helping Indiana farmers save millions of tons of topsoil every year with conservation tillage?
Last week, our newswaves were filled with the scaremongering of a self-styled "consumer" organization called the Environmental Working Group. EWG published a "report" titled "Into the Mouths of Babes: Bottle-fed Infants At Risk From Atrazine." It claims that the Environmental Protection Agency is not doing an adequate job of protecting our children from atrazine in the drinking water.
Pesticides-cause-cancer scares are always interesting. Especially as the cancer risk of U.S. non-smokers began to decline about 1950, just about the time the world's farmers began to use pesticides widely. Cancer among kids was never common, but deaths from childhood cancer have declined by almost half since 1973 (from 5.4 per 100,000 to 2.9).
Now, U.S. and international health officials say atrazine is even safer than we thought when it was approved 40 years ago. In the past three years, more than 100 safety studies have been done on atrazine. They all indicate that children could consume more than 1,000 times the volume of water with the highest atrazine concentrations indicated in the EWG report without increasing their lifetime cancer risk
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, established by the World Health Organization, has put atrazine into its lowest-risk chemical group - "not classifiable as to carcinogenicity to humans."
Equally important, atrazine has helped farmers invent the most sustainable food production system in 10,000 years, conservation tillage. Farmers are using atrazine to help cut soil erosion per acre by 65 to 95 percent.
Since it's so widely used, traces of it turn up in the drinking water of many farm-state communities during the flush of spring rains. This fact has always made it a famous target for eco-activists and the new safety and conservation developments haven't kept Carol Browner, the Administrator of the EPA, from trying to ban atrazine.
But Ms. Browner's own EPA scientists upgraded atrazine's safety rating by seven-fold in 1992. If the EPA raised the atrazine safety margins, as its own science indicates it should, a 22-pound toddler could drink more than 20,000 gallons per day of the water the EWG says is "dangerous" without increasing her cancer risk. (Do tell your kids not to try drinking 20,000 gallons of water per day.)
It's odd that Ms. Browner, an avowed environmentalist, isn't impressed by atrazine's contribution to the sustainability of human society. Soil conservation has been the biggest threat to human society for 10,000 years. For all those centuries, farmers have been plowing to control weeds that would otherwise take over their fields and starve the crops. Plowing opened the soil to wind, water, erosion and soil degradation, but until herbicides were developed, we had no alternative to plowing.
(In Third World countries, most of the women and children still spend most of their time fighting weeds by hand, while courting skin cancer in the fierce sunlight.)
The reality is that conservation tillage and no-till farming are big-time good news for both humanity and the environment. Farmers are giving up "bare-earth farming" on millions of acres of farmland in Indiana, across the U.S., and increasingly in Latin America, Asia and Australia.
Atrazine is the lowest-cost herbicide for conservation tillage, in part because it's so old and time-tested that it's off-patent so the farmers make most of the extra profit, not the chemical company.
We are pleased at the new studies which find it even safer than we used to believe. We hope that activists like the Environmental Working Group fail in their attempts to take it away from the soil conservation effort.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.