Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
October 5, 1999
A recent report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) states that the herbicide atrazine is polluting tap water in almost 800 Midwestern communities. EWG found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has seriously underestimated atrazine exposure for infants fed formula mixed with this tap water.
Atrazine, the most heavily used herbicide in the U.S., is applied to 50 million acres of corn, and it enters drinking water supplies through runoff. Many water utilities serving major cities have begun using powdered activated carbon systems, reducing but not necessarily eliminating herbicides in drinking water. In smaller communities, water utilities often lack the resources for sophisticated filtration systems of this sort.
EWG analyzed over 127,000 tap water test results for the years 1993 through 1998 from seven Midwestern states: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas. The group found atrazine residues in tap water delivered to 10.4 million people in 796 towns. In some communities the lifetime cancer risk from average atrazine concentrations is more than 20 times higher than EPA safety standards. Peak daily atrazine exposures in tap water have been measured as high as 42 parts per billion (ppb), 14 times the legally allowed annual average amount.
The Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), passed in 1996, requires all pesticide exposures to be safe for infants and children. According to the deadlines established by FQPA, health standards for atrazine and other high-risk pesticides were to be revised according to these guidelines by August 3, 1999. However, the EPA has not adhered to this deadline, announcing this year that new regulatory limits for atrazine in tap water will not be proposed until 2001. This failure by the EPA to enforce FQPA puts more than 18,000 bottle-fed infants at serious risk each year, according to EWG's analysis.
EPA safety standards rest on the incorrect assumption that a bottle-fed newborn drinks the same amount of tap water relative to its body weight as an adult. In fact, for a mother to get the same dose of atrazine in relation to her body weight as a bottle-fed baby, she would have to drink three and a half gallons of tap water a day.
Using the amount of atrazine a bottle-fed infant receives, EWG estimated the cancer risk accumulation during the first years of life. For 138 of the communities considered, EWG found that by age five children will exceed EPA's lifetime allowable dose of atrazine. In 40 towns, bottle-fed infants exceed their legally allowable lifetime cancer risk from atrazine by their first birthday. In Kansas City, Kansas, bottle-fed infants can receive their legal lifetime dose by just over eight months of age while in some other towns, babies receive their lifetime dose in their first four months.
Even these figures are likely to be understated, because they are based on toxicity studies on adult animals, which would not reveal special susceptibilities of fetuses, infants and children.
Producers of infant formula remove a large proportion of herbicide contaminants from water used to make liquid infant formulas. However, few of the communities with herbicide-contaminated tap water can afford the water treatment processes these companies use. In Columbus, Ohio, the manufacturer of the infant formula Similac purifies tap water using advanced filtration and separation processes. A child fed dehydrated Similac and other formulas reconstituted with Columbus tap water, however, would reach his or her legal lifetime limit for cancer risk from atrazine in less than five years.
EWG points out that the economic burden of controlling atrazine exposure falls on water utilities, while the herbicide's manufacturer takes no responsibility.
Atrazine, made by the Swiss-based multinational Novartis, causes more public drinking water supplies to violate federal health standards each year than any other chemical pollutant in the country. EWG argues that unless Novartis takes responsibility for outfitting water utilities with the proper equipment to filter out atrazine contamination, EPA should ban use of atrazine entirely.
Source: Jane Houlihan and Richard Wiles, Into the Mouths of Babes: Bottle-fed Infants at Risk from Atrazine in Tap Water, Environmental Working Group, July 1999.
Copies of this report may be ordered for US$20 each (plus 6% sales tax or $1.20 for residents of Washington, DC) and US$3 for postage and handling. Also available on EWG's website. Contact Environmental Working Group, 1718 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20009; phone (202) 667-6982; fax (202) 232-2592; email firstname.lastname@example.org; website http://www.ewg.org