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Thursday, March 4, 2010 01:02 am

Popular farm chemical goes on trial in Springfield

House committee gathers evidence on atrazine

For Leon Corzine of Assumption, north of Pana, atrazine is as essential to farming as soil, water or sun. Corzine, along with wife Susie and son Craig, is a fifth-generation farmer who grows corn and soybeans and owns Angus cattle.

Corzine relies on atrazine, a weed-killer used by Illinois farmers for 50 years. When atrazine is applied after this year’s harvest, he won’t have to till the ground until planting season next year, reducing erosion and conserving soil and water, he says.

Although atrazine is banned in the European Union, the product is used on nearly two million corn acres in Illinois.

“We steward our land carefully,” Corzine says. “Managed use of atrazine is a prime example of that stewardship.”

However, some scientific studies have linked atrazine to breast and prostate cancer, low birth weight, declining testosterone levels, low sperm count and other health problems in rats, frogs, fish, birds and humans.

Dr. Tyrone Hayes, a scientist and professor at University of California Berkeley, presented data last week to the House Environmental Health committee. Hayes’ research on amphibians shows a connection between atrazine and cancer and instances of de-castration among frogs. According to Hayes, his research is consistent with that of many other studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

“It’s part of my mission to make sure the public has information from a scientist who knows the data,” Hayes says. “My opinion is atrazine is not good. My opinion is based on fact. If you continue using a chemical that might cause breast cancer, that might induce prostate cancer, that might cause gender reassignment or low birth weights, if you use that chemical, the fact is it will get into your water and it will get into your body.”

Genetically modified corn is one alternative to atrazine, though it also stirs controversy because of fears of long-term effects on the food chain. Countries in the European Union use an atrazine substitute – terbuthylazine, which has similar herbicidal properties.

Dr. Tim Pastoor, a principal scientist for Syngenta, the company that produces atrazine, disputed Hayes’ claims at the committee meeting. Pastoor says atrazine is completely safe, and has been the subject of more than 6,000 studies presented to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Though atrazine is once again up for review by the EPA, the agency approved the herbicide for use in 2006, after what Pastoor says was a comprehensive study using 3,000 frogs in two different laboratories.

“I’ve got friends, I’ve got family, I’ve got colleagues who look at me and ask me questions about atrazine,” Pastoor says. “They look at me and ask, ‘Is it safe?’ and ‘Can you use it safely?’ and I can look them in the eye and say, ‘Yes, you certainly can.’”

Pastoor says studies done by both the EPA and indepedent researchers show that atrazine has no effect on frogs’ sexual development. Hayes’ research is inconclusive, he says.

Hayes says that even if Syngenta ignores his personal studies, there are many others that support the link between atrazine and the aforementioned health problems. He discussed research that links high atrazine content in male field workers and atrazine applicators in Missouri to instances of low sperm count and low fertility.

“These men have 24,000 times the atrazine in their urine than we use to chemically castrate or make hermaphrodite our frogs,” Hayes says. “They could pee in a bucket and we could dilute it 24,000 times and use what’s left to chemically castrate 24,000 amphibians.”

The EPA has done studies that are consistent with Hayes’ work, he says, including one that shows rats fed atrazine make estrogen when they’re not supposed to.

“This is the same EPA that Syngenta claims has refuted my work,” Hayes says. “EPA published several papers saying atrazine causes abortion in rats, as well as breast and prostate cancer.”

Corzine says atrazine’s benefit to farmers is between $200-$400 million per year, on grain prices and other factors. Since he owns a small family farm, he pays a licensed atrazine applicator to spread the herbicide on his fields. He needs atrazine because it means he will have to till his farm less, since it keeps the weeds out.

“We live where we apply the chemicals,” Corzine says. “We apply these products to our crops, which are our families’ livelihood, and we have a long history of implementing both conservation practices and best management practices, which insure their safe use and protect water quality.”

Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Broadview) says she had the opportunity to meet with Hayes last year, and she was “alarmed” by his findings.

“The issue for us as legislators is, if you don’t know about something, you can’t do anything about it,” she says. “But just to know the information that you’ve shared puts us in a mode of action. We need to do something about this.”

Committee chairperson Rep. Karen May (D-Highwood) said the committee only wished to gain scientific information from Hayes and Pastoor, and as of now, no anti-atrazine bills have been introduced.

Contact Diane Ivey at divey@illinoistimes.com
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