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After years of fielding complaints about the ubiquitous weed-killer and water pollutant atrazine, the Environmental Protection Agency has decided to take a closer look at the product, used on corn and other crops, mainly in the Midwest. Some of those complaints are documented in a database produced by the Center in 2008 as part as of our Perils of the New Pesticides investigation.

Last week, an EPA advisory panel began assessing the latest science on the chemical, frequently found in surface waters and groundwater, and two more meetings of the advisory group are planned for later this year.

The Perils of the New Pesticides project includes a tool that allows the public to search 15 years of previously undisclosed EPA data for reported environmental and health effects of specific products. A search of “atrazine” produces 242 pages of results from 1992 through 2007. This material reveals that the EPA received hundreds, if not thousands, of reports of atrazine in water, but does not indicate the severity of the contamination or whether potential health threats existed. Atrazine is the most common water pollutant found in the EPA database, but that could be the result of state and federal agencies specifically testing for the compound.

Last October, the EPA announced that it would re-evaluate atrazine, focusing on the compound’s potential association with cancer as well as birth defects, low birth weights, and premature births. Of concern are recent studies, such as this one by researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine, which found a correlation between birth defects and elevated levels of agrichemicals, including atrazine, in surface waters.

Steve Owens, assistant administrator over the EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, said in a statement that the agency “will take a hard look at atrazine and other substances” and “determine whether a change in our regulatory position is appropriate.” Atrazine was banned in the European Union in 2003 due to its presence in groundwater above a strict regulatory limit for all pesticides; there are some restrictions on its use in the U.S., but it remains one of the most commonly applied herbicides. More than 60 million pounds were used domestically in 2008.

Steven Goldsmith, a spokesman for atrazine’s Switzerland-based manufacturer, Syngenta, called the EPA’s reassessment “really unnecessary. Atrazine has been one of the most studied agricultural products in history. The EPA just completed a 12-year review, which resulted in [atrazine’s] re-registration in 2006.” While atrazine often turns up in rivers and streams, Goldsmith said, the concentrations are “well below thresholds set by the EPA to protect human health.”

The EPA’s renewed interest in a pesticide that has long troubled public health advocates closely follows a move by the Food and Drug Administration to reassess bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in hard plastic bottles and metal food and beverage cans since the 1960s. The FDA announced in January that it had “some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children” and would, along with the National Institutes of Health, conduct “in-depth studies to answer key questions and clarify uncertainties about the risks of BPA.” The agency said it supported industry actions to stop producing baby bottles and cups containing the chemical.cpikftag

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A journalist since 1978, Jim Morris has won more than 80 awards for his work, including the George Polk...