Weed Killers By The Glass
September 1, 1995

Weed Killers By The Glass: Foreword

The citizens of Springfield, Illinois woke up one morning this past May to front-page news that was mighty hard to swallow.

Under what can be charitably described as an understated headline in The State Journal-Register ("Chemical Imbalance In Water"), readers in the state capital learned that the agricultural weed killer atrazine "reached record levels in the outer reaches of Lake Springfield and could begin pouring into the city's water intake system as early as today."

Today? Talk about environmental wake up calls. This one would make you think twice about that second cup of coffee.

"We may be treating very high levels that we have not previously treated," Springfield water division manager Tom Skelly told a reporter. In a bar chart accompanying the article, atrazine levels above 12 parts per billion in the tributaries and the reservoir towered above the 3 parts per billion federal health standard.

But in fact, and through no fault of his own, Mr. Kelly could not have had the foggiest idea if the herbicide spritzer the water department was about to serve its customers was the strongest ever. Nor could the Illinois EPA. Nor could any other water utility or state or federal agency that we know of. The reason is simple. Until very recently, neither water utilities nor government agencies have been required to test for atrazine or other weed killers in tap water and make results available to the public.

Illinois, to its great credit, was the first state to fully implement a statewide program of surface water monitoring for herbicides, as mandated by Federal law. But they started only in January, 1992. And to its credit, Springfield's water department set up its own elaborate testing system. But that was in place beginning only in 1994.

Trouble is, atrazine was registered for use quite a while back by its Swiss manufacturer, the Ciba corporation. It was 1958, actually. Remember the year Elvis went into the army? And though it has been banned in Germany, Italy, Sweden, Norway and elsewhere, atrazine remains today the most widely used pesticide in "modern" U.S. agriculture. Nationwide, farmers sprayed over 72 million pounds of it in 1994, over 11 million in Illinois.

To say the least, the water testing part of this agrichemical revolution got started rather late. Residents of Springfield have been drinking atrazine in their coffee, in their infant formula, in their Kool-Aid, and in their reconstituted orange juice, and by gulps from their drinking fountains and straight from their taps for decades. A.G. Taylor, agricultural advisor with the Illinois EPA, said as much in the State Journal-Record that day: "We may have been consuming some of these chemicals for the past 25 years in varying concentrations, we don't know."

We don't know?

Farmers pour millions of pounds of a possible human carcinogen on Illinois cropland for several decades and we don't know how much of the stuff people have been drinking unawares? Certainly Springfield's residents didn't know until recently. What's more, we're still not sure that anyone has told them that atrazine is just one of the weed killers they've been drinking by the glass this year (and unquestionably for many years before).

Tests performed by a university laboratory, commissioned by the Environmental Working Group and presented in this study, found the herbicide cyanazine in Springfield tap water at concentrations above the federal health advisory level of 1 part per billion (ppb) in each of 13 samples taken between May 27 and June 29 of this year.

The "good news" is that the additional, emergency water treatment Springfield employed in 1995 (the second such emergency in as many years) knocked atrazine levels down below the 3 ppb federal health standard in all but one sample. The bad news: Our tests still found atrazine in every sample over that period at levels just below the federal atrazine standard. The combined load of atrazine and cyanazine in tapwater was over the respective, individual federal benchmarks every time. And in one sample on which broader analysis was performed, we found that on at least one day Springfield residents drank up to 4 weed killers or toxic by-products in their tap water. In fairness, that could be considered good news compared to, say, Danville, Illinois to the east, where a single tap water sample yielded seven pesticides.

Weed Killers By The Glass presents the results of a citizen tap water monitoring program undertaken by a network of environmental organizations in 29 cities throughout the American corn belt, and in New Orleans and Baltimore. The project found weed killers coming right out of the tap in 28 of the 29 cities sampled, at levels that routinely exceeded federal standards or health advisories.

The people who live in these cities, and in dozens of other corn belt towns where drinking water is laced with weed killers, should not have to drink any pesticides by the glass.

DuPont Chemical, maker of cyanazine, recently made an important and we think courageous contribution to solving the problem. Just weeks ago the company announced a voluntary phase-out of cyanazine, a product worth tens of millions of dollars to DuPont annually. Over the next few years the company will accelerate its marketing of newer, safer, cost-effective herbicides that farmers can apply at much lower levels after weeds appear in crop fields. Make no mistake, we believe the findings in this report justify an even faster phase-out of cyanazine. Nevertheless, DuPont's commitment to the future, not the past, of weed control, stands in sharp contrast to the retrograde stance of the Ciba corporation and other pesticide companies. They are mounting a major campaign to keep atrazine and other dangerous, outdated, high usage rate weed killers on the market--and in America's drinking water at even higher levels than they are now.

And they'll win, unless the EPA, Congress, mayors, governors, and water utilities hear otherwise from the serious drinkers in the crowd.

Kenneth A. Cook
Environmental Working Group