Watch Out Midwest! Is Atrazine Contaminating Your Drinking Water?

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How safe is your drinking water? Probably not as safe as you think–especially if you live in the Midwest. The spring spraying season is underway, which means waterways in the middle of the country–including those that supply our drinking water–are infested with atrazine, a widely-used herbicide. Atrazine gained national attention last fall when 43 water systems in six states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi and Ohio) sued atrazine’s manufacturer, Syngenta, to make the company pay to have the chemical removed from their drinking water. Atrazine levels are at their highest between the months of April and July, when farmers, lawn care workers and other professionals are using this chemical to take care of crops and lawns.

While the Environmental Protection Agency has labeled atrazine a possible endocrine disruptor, EPA officials claim that Americans aren’t exposed to unsafe levels of this chemical. Scientists disagree. Studies have linked high levels of atrazine in the water supply to birth defects in children, and in one study male frogs exposed to atrazine transformed into fully functioning female frogs. Rising health concerns (and a bit of prodding) have led the EPA to reevalute atrazine’s effect on human health, including its links to birth defects and some cancers.

What percentage of the population in your state has been exposed to atrazine in their drinking water? Photo Courtesy Soil Water Air Protection Enterprise and The New York Times.

Atrazine washes off into our rivers, lakes and streams, where it eventually ends up in our municipal water supply. The National Resources Defense Council reports that about 75 percent of stream water and 40 percent of all groundwater samples from agricultural areas contain atrazine. This might not be a big deal for public health if local water filtration systems could handle the chemical, but most can’t. Many water utilities in the Midwest use sand filters, which are cheaper and last longer than carbon filters but don’t remove the more dangerous compounds such as phthalates and pesticides that make their way into the water supply.

The European Union banned atrazine in 2004, but until the U.S. takes this step (if ever), it’s important to scrutinize your drinking water sources. The best way to safeguard your water from atrazine contamination is to use a carbon filter (such as Brita pitcher).

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