Hearing on Atrazine raises questions about use in Minnesota


‘Save the Sperm! Ban Atrazine!’ That was the call from Rep. Ken Tschumper during a press conference before a Minnesota Senate hearing on Atrazine and public health.

Atrazine, public health and scientific integrity were the topics for a Minnesota Senate hearing on October 10. Groups of environmentalists met for a press conference prior to the hearing to call for the reinstatement of former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) employee and environmental whistleblower Paul Wotzka. University of California-Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes also testified before the committee about the dangerous effects of atrazine, which is extensively used to control weeds in cornfields. Hayes was asked to attend the hearing because of his ten years of research on the effects of atrazine on amphibians.

“[My research] showed that atrazine caused the development of hermaphroditic frogs,” said Hayes, “the hormones are exactly the same in frogs and in humans. So, when there’s a concern for them, there’s a concern for you as well.” Atrazine exposure has been shown to reduce testosterone and increase estrogen, as well as leading to suppressed immune functions thus leaving the body more susceptible to certain cancers, such as prostate and breast cancer. It also has been linked to low fertility and low sperm counts in males.

The hearing moved away slightly from its original purpose of discussing the adverse effects of atrazine and how Minnesota should regulate it. Hayes commented that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not adequately reviewed atrazine and that Syngenta, a major manufacturer of atrazine, used former EPA panel member Werner Kloas to conduct its atrazine studies. He also suggested that Syngenta employees were being exposed to high levels of atrazine on the job and that the company was providing them with medication when they were diagnosed with certain cancers.

Senator David Hann (R-Eden Prairie) questioned the purpose of Hayes’ presentation, which was supposed to focus on atrazine research. “Are you then saying that there’s a conspiracy between Syngenta and the government to poison and murder people?”

Hayes referred back to his research, reiterating that an estimated 70% of all Americans have been exposed to atrazine. More than 30 independent studies show negative effects from atrazine, especially to those in close contact with the chemical. Many of the people tested have been those without a voice, says Hayes, such as Mexican migrant farm workers who have a life expectancy of only 50. “No one knows about these men,” says Hayes.

Syngenta representatives were not invited to attend the hearing because, as Senator John Marty (DFL-St. Paul) said, “Syngenta always seems to be where Dr. Hayes is but won’t speak about atrazine.” Midway through the three-hour hearing, Senator Marty called upon anyone representing Syngenta to come forward. Bruce Clayman, who currently has a contract with Syngenta, unexpectedly identified himself, commenting that he did not know Dr. Hayes was going to be speaking. “I came here to cover for the [Agriculture] groups. I just came here to monitor.”

Paul Wotzka, who filed a lawsuit against the MPCA after being fired last spring, planned to provide some of his research on atrazine in Minnesota waters to the committee. Senator Betsy Wergin (R-Princeton) objected, saying that because Wotzka had a lawsuit against the MPCA pending, he should not be allowed to testify about a substance that was linked to his former employer. After back-and-forth argument between committee members, Wotzka was allowed to testify.

Wotzka’s presentation included his research with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and requests for regulatory procedures for atrazine. He did not speak about his lawsuit. Wotzka claims that the MPCA and the MDA are supposed to work together to promulgate water standards in the state, and that the current level of pesticides in Minnesota waters are unacceptable. Wotzka says that more than a dozen pesticides found in surface water are without standards, mentioning that acetochlor was used for 14 years before having standards. The EPA has set atrazine drinking water standards at 3.1 parts/billion. In his research, Wotzka has found levels of 30 parts/billion in Minnesota rivers. “People don’t know about our water, especially our drinking water.”

Dan Stoddard of the MDA Pesticide and Fertilizer Management Division made it clear that the MDA is concerned about the levels of atrazine found in Minnesota, especially ground water. For years, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) has been promoting voluntary Best Management Practices (BMP). The BMPs are meant to minimize degradation of ground and surface water through a series of voluntary practices, such as limiting pesticide use, reducing its rate and altering application setback distances. Pesticides that do not respond to voluntary measures are supposed to be removed from the market.

Stoddard admitted that while there have been decreased levels of atrazine found in past years, those lower levels could be attributed to less rainfall overall. He also confirmed that atrazine is “relatively persistent” in the environment, taking one year or more to be flushed out of the water. Hayes maintains that atrazine stays around far longer and that France, where atrazine has been banned for 20 years, has found the pesticide in its aquifers even today. “Atrazine we’re applying now could affect my granddaughter,” says Hayes.

According to Rep. Ken Tschumper (DFL-La Crescent), atrazine was supposed to be reviewed under the Groundwater Protection Act after its first four years on the market and that twelve years later, it still hasn’t been reviewed. The Groundwater Protection Act, administered by the MN Department of Health, develops health risk limits for substances found in groundwater. When asked by Representative Tschumper if the MDA was following the Groundwater Protection Act, Stoddard responded, “we believe we are very closely following the guidelines found in the act…we have done samplings of wells on the edge of farm fields. But prevention is the goal.”

While the EPA establishes federal standards for pesticide levels, Minnesota can also set its own limits. Starting in March, the Minnesota Department of Health has one year to set levels for atrazine. “A more objective look will set the limits much lower,” said Tschumper.

Senator Marty said that the hearing only served as an introduction into the discussion of pesticides and public health. He added, “We seem to be seeing more frequently where politics is beginning to trump science.”

Atrazine has been used in the U.S for 40 years. The European Union has banned atrazine use, despite its origins at Syngenta, based in Switzerland. In the U.S., atrazine is used widely to control weeds in cornfields.