Tough To Swallow

How Pesticide Companies Profit from Poisoning America’s Tap Water

As the result of a law passed by Congress last year, millions of Americans and hundreds of water suppliers across the Midwest- ern United States have a new, first line of defense against the agricultural weed killers that have contaminated their tap water for decades.

The 1996 law––the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA)–– closed a gaping loophole in Federal pesticide laws. It requires that food tolerances (safe levels) take into account all exposure to pesticides––including, for the first time, exposure via drinking water––and that this aggregate exposure must be safe for infants and children. FQPA pro- hibits the use of a pesticide on food crops if the risk from the pesticide via drinking water (or any other route) exceeds the new, more protective safety benchmark in the Act. Prior to last year’s law, health risks from pesticides were addressed only under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

One of the most important implications of FQPA is that it finally fixes responsibility for widespread, long term herbicide contamination of Midwestern tap water squarely where it belongs: on huge, highly profitable pesticide companies like Novartis (formerly Ciba) and Monsanto.

These pesticide companies have made billions of dollars selling more than 100 million pounds of these weed killers to farmers, every year for decades. They have sold these products with full knowledge that the pesticides will find their way into drinking water.

Until last year, the regulatory gap for pesticides in water allowed pesticide companies to duck their responsibility for contamination and clean up. Water treatment plants throughout the Midwest have had to step in to meet the standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the law that regulates all water suppliers. In an ever more difficult struggle to deliver clean tap water to their customers, an increasing number of water utilities throughout the “corn belt” are investing huge sums on special treatment measures to reduce the level of herbicides in finished drinking water. Ultimately, of course, these costs are passed on to Midwestern consumers, with a price tag of tens of millions of dollars each year.

Water suppliers and drinkers should not have to pay to clean up after polluters. And no one should have to tolerate tap water tainted by toxic weed killers.

Federal Cancer Risk Level Routinely Exceeded

Congressional committee report language accompanying FQPA makes it clear that “safe” means a negligible level of risk and that for carcinogens the Congress understood and intended that, “EPA interprets a negligible risk to be a one-in-a-million lifetime risk. The committee expects the Administrator to continue to follow this interpretation” (FQPA 1996).

Based on Environmental Working Group testing of tap water in three corn belt states, as well as EWG’s review of test results from state environmental authorities in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and the U.S. EPA, atrazine and other weed killers are pervasive in tap water at levels that are not safe for infants and children. We found:

  • Cancer risks from atrazine and simazine in tap water exceed the new FQPA cancer risk benchmark in 245 communities: Seventy-seven communities in Illinois, 70 in Ohio, 49 in Missouri, and 46 communities in six additional states (Delaware, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, and Nebraska) (Table 1).
  • Over 4.3 million Americans — including approximately 57,000 infants — are exposed to weed killers at concentrations exceeding the new acceptable cancer risk level established under FQPA.
  • Cancer risks from atrazine and simazine in tap water are ten times the new FQPA benchmark in 60 Midwestern towns: 29 in Illinois, 13 in Ohio, 7 in Missouri, and 11 in six other states. Risks are fifteen times the new FQPA benchmark level in 24 communities (Table 2).

These cancer risk estimates are based on lifetime average exposures and do not account for the special vulnerability of infants to carcinogens, or their higher exposure to weed killers in tap water due to their higher volume of water consumption relative to their size. Under FQPA, the EPA must explicitly integrate the vulnerability of infants in their future assessment of cancer risks for these weed killers. When EPA conducts these assessments, the federal risk estimates will finally reflect the increased risks faced by infants drinking weed killers in their infant formula. Current risk estimates do not.

The federal drinking water health standard for atrazine established under the Safe Drinking Water Act is 3 parts per billion. Only 17 water suppliers identified in this analysis violated the atrazine standard in 1996-1997. Indeed, most cities listed as having contaminated tap water may still be in compliance with federal drinking water health standards.

New food tolerances mandated by the 1996 FQPA, however, require that all exposures, including drinking water, are “safe” and do not exceed a one-in-one-million cancer risk. Based on EPA’s standard risk assessment methods, which do not yet account for increased risk from exposure during infancy, a safe level of exposure for atrazine alone would be about 0.15 parts per billion, a level far lower than virtually all contaminated tap water supplies in the Midwest. This “safe” level is roughly equivalent to the European standard for atrazine in tap water of 0.1 parts per billion, which is 30 times more protective than the U.S. standard established under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Contamination is Widespread

Commonly used agricultural weed killers contaminate the tap water of 374 Midwestern towns: 144 in Ohio, 97 in Illinois, 59 in Missouri, and 74 towns in nine other states. Over ten million Americans in the Midwestern United States and the Chesapeake Bay region are exposed to cancer causing weed killers in their tap water (Table 3).

Indeed, the pesticide industry’s own internal study found atrazine in 96 percent of all water systems tested, acetochlor in 47 percent, and alachlor in 26 percent. Acetochlor, a newly registered cancer causing weed killer, was allowed on the market by the Clinton Administration EPA in 1993 and has quickly found its way into Midwestern drinking water.

View and Download the report here: Tough To Swallow

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