In a dramatic switch from the Bush administration, the EPA recently announced its plans to conduct new studies to determine the risk of atrazine, a commonly used weed killer that’s found in everything from cornfields and golf courses to suburban lawns. 

“We’re going to use our scientific resources in a new and more aggressive way regarding atrazine,” said Stephen A. Owens in a New York Times article about the agency’s plans. 

Owens, who was recently confirmed as the EPA’s assistant administrator for prevention, pesticides and toxic substances, went on to explain that the agency would be looking at new scientific findings concerning atrazine as well as reviewing past work done by the agency under previous administrations.

“We have a question: Did the decisions made in previous administrations use all the available science?” said Owens. 

For years, environmentalists and many researchers alike have alleged that atrazine could pose a problem to both human and environmental health. However, as early as last summer the EPA has insisted that current regulations are adequate. 

New research findings beg to differ, however, uncovering possible links between contaminated drinking water and birth defects, low birth weights and reproductive problems in humans. Worst of all, some of these effects are seen even at concentrations already deemed acceptable by federal standards. 

The EPA will be examining these issues, as well as the possibility of a link between atrazine and cancer, a major concern considering that the chemical is one of the most commonly found contaminants in drinking water supplies. 

MNN has reported on the health affects of atrazine in previous posts, deeming it “a nasty herbicide that, at concentrations as little as 0.1 part per billion, has been shown to turn male frogs into hermaphrodites.”

And, the chemical also been linked to low sperm counts in men, according to another MNN article. 

Even more scary is that a Times investigation found that atrazine concentrations in some American towns have spiked sharply in the past, sometimes lasting for up to one month, according to the EPA's own records. Local water officials and residents were often unaware of the spikes. 

Atrazine’s biggest manufacturer, Syngenta, insists that the chemical has already undergone extensive testing and therefore expects a “positive outcome for atrazine at the end of this process.” 

Meanwhile, officials in other communities have taken action. Six states – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi and Ohio – recently sued the chemical manufacturers in an effort to get them to cover costs for removing the chemical from their drinking water. 

The EPA’s recent announcement comes on the heels of EPA director Lisa Jackson stating that U.S. chemical regulation is in need of some major changes. 

This latest move to reevaluate atrazine looks like a step in that direction as the agency is set to announce four meetings over the next year in which the agency’s independent scientific advisory panel will focus on atrazine. 

 “We know far too little about chemicals coming into the market,” said Jackson at a summit of government scientists, chemical industry executives and environmental advocates on Tuesday. “Manufacturers have far too little certainty about how chemicals they make are regulated. The EPA needs the tools to do the job that the public expects.” 

EPA to evaluate whether common weed killer harms more than weeds
The herbicide atrazine is suspected of causing birth defects and reproductive problems.