by Matt VonTungeln
On July 2, 2004, law firms from Texas and Missouri filed six class action lawsuits on behalf of the Holiday Shores Sanitary District. The suits name five manufacturers and one formulator of Atrazine as defendants, and GROWMARK Inc. (a distributor of Atrazine) as a co-defendant in each suit. The lawsuits allege that Atrazine, a popular herbicide, “breaks down into degradant chemicals which are harmful to humans.” The defendants filed a motion to dismiss that was denied by the circuit court judge. However, the judge did point out that a defense motion for summary judgment is still possible.
Current standards for Atrazine in a water supply and their basis
Atrazine was first used in 1958, which predates the creation of the EPA. Even though it predates the EPA, Atrazine has been put through the same safety checks as any other chemical. The current EPA procedure for determining if a chemical is safe is a four-step process. The first step in the process is for the company that manufactures the chemical to submit an application. Once the EPA receives the application, they assign it a project manager to review the human health risks, occupational risks, and environmental risks of the chemical. Next, the EPA conducts further risk assessment and conducts a peer review of all scientific data available on the chemical. Lastly, the EPA will review all the materials again and make their regulatory decision.
The current EPA safe drinking water limit for Atrazine is 3 parts per billion. To arrive at this limit the EPA reviewed extensive testing conducted on rats to establish a safe consumption level. The EPA then adjusted the results to equal the average water consumption for an average sized person over a 70 year life-span. Finally, the EPA included a one thousand fold safety factor to arrive at the final safe drinking water limit of 3 parts per billion.
The Benefits of Atrazine
Atrazine enables producers to maintain lower production costs because of its effectiveness at controlling broadleaf weeds and grasses. Atrazine also provides environmental benefits because it allows producers to engage in conservation tillage practices that help reduce erosion. The reduced erosion that results from the conservation tillage practices helps to reduce the amount of sediment in water supplies. Currently, the EPA estimates that the use of Atrazine on corn results in an added value to the crop of $28 per acre. However, other estimates place the added value of using Atrazine as being between $10 and $35 per acre.
Harms Caused by Atrazine
The current EPA position is that Atrazine poses “no harm that would result to the general U.S. population.” However, some research has shown increased occurrences of low fertility among males in areas that use large amounts of Atrazine. It should be noted however, that none of the research asserts or proves a causal relationship between Atrazine and the low fertility rates.
The Costs of Banning Atrazine
The estimates with regard to the effects of a total ban on Atrazine vary widely. One study, conducted by Professor Don Coursey of the University of Chicago, estimated that a total Atrazine ban “could result in annual losses of between $159 million and $555 million” in the state of Illinois alone. A 2006 study conducted by the EPA estimated the nationwide loss from the ban of Atrazine to be $1.8 billion. The last nationwide study conducted estimates a total loss from the ban of Atrazine to be $1.45 billion. The estimated losses in yields for corn growers range from a high of 11 bushels per acre to a low of 5.8 bushels per acre. If Atrazine is banned most producers would probably turn to one of two options. The first option is the use of GMO Roundup Ready seeds. Notably, many studies have shown an increase in weed resistance to Roundup after as little as 3 years of use. The other option would be to switch to using the herbicide Callisto. Recent studies have shown that Callisto is a viable alternative to Atrazine. However, it should be noted that Callisto is more expensive than Atrazine. While Callisto makes conservation tillage available to producers, producers selecting to use other methods would have to bear increased fuel costs.
There are also environmental costs to the ban of Atrazine. Banning Atrazine would result in increases in the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increased usage of fossil fuels, and increased runoff of sediment and other chemicals. One study estimated that conservation tillage practices had resulted in annual savings of $3.5 billion. Another study estimated that conservation tillage reduces the use of fossil fuels “by as much as 3.9 gallons of fuel per acre.”
Atrazine has been used in the United States for over 50 years without a single study showing a causal connection between Atrazine and adverse affects on humans. In fact, Atrazine just went through a vigorous recertification process with the EPA that spanned over twelve years. The crux of the Holiday Shores lawsuits is that the water district claims that Atrazine is harmful to humans at levels below the EPA limits. Put simply, there is not enough evidence to support this argument. While there are other viable alternatives to Atrazine, American farmers should not be forced to bear significantly increased costs when there is no evidence that Atrazine causes harm to the general populace.
** Disclaimer – This article was written by Matt VonTungeln, OFB Legal Foundation intern, University of Oklahoma School of Law. This communication is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. Transmission is not intended to create and receipt does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Legal advice of any nature should be sought from legal counsel.