US water suppliers cover up spikes in hormone-disrupting herbicide contamination, report claims
Taking advantage of regulatory loopholes, US water suppliers may be concealing alarmingly high concentrations of toxic herbicides in Americans’ drinking water, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group.
The report found more than 30 million Americans’ drinking water is contaminated with atrazine, a known endocrine and reproductive disruptor linked to increased risk of preterm births and fetal deformities. Worse, discrepancies between reported federal and state measurements of the contamination suggest that local water utilities are gaming the regulatory system to avoid reporting “spikes” in contamination from the increase in herbicide usage during the farming season.
EPA regulations permit water utilities to report annual averages for drinking water contaminants, allowing them to mask spikes in runoff during the growing season by averaging them with the low levels found during the winter – or even not to measure during the high season at all.
EWG senior science advisor Olga Naidenko accused the utilities of “playing the dates game,” covering up illegal levels of atrazine contamination by cleverly timing their measurements, and the report found 70 percent of utilities had sampled contamination outside of high usage periods or reported lower contamination levels than the EPA.
While the US allows up to three parts per billion (ppb) of atrazine in drinking water, California classified it as a “substance known to cause reproductive toxicity” in 2016 and the EU banned it in 2003. Since 1999, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has advised lowering the legal level of atrazine to .15 ppb, based on a study linking the chemical to breast cancer in rats.
EPA figures showed some utilities reported “spikes” as high as seven times the legal limit last year. Evansville, Illinois, led the toxic pack with a high of 22 ppb, followed by Piqua, Ohio, which spiked to 16 ppb. Federal authorities are not required to report these spikes to residents, even though a relatively uncomplicated water filter neutralizes much of the danger from the herbicide. More water utilities in Texas tested positive for atrazine than any other state – 472 – with Kansas a distant second at 233.
Though not as infamous as Monsanto’s glyphosate, atrazine is the second-most commonly used herbicide in the US. In 2013, manufacturer Syngenta settled a class action lawsuit over contamination of drinking water sources in Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri, and Kansas, paying out $105 million to communities hardest-hit by the contamination. Nearly a dozen recent human epidemiological studies have confirmed negative health outcomes associated with the herbicide, including increased risk of preterm delivery and low birthweight.
While the EPA has shown a reluctance to reassess its public position on atrazine’s negative health impact, public sentiment can change quickly, as August’s legal ruling against Monsanto has demonstrated. After courts ruled the company’s Roundup brand of glyphosate weed killer was responsible for a groundskeeper’s non-Hodgkins lymphoma, more than 9,300 plaintiffs have filed their own suits seeking damages.
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