Midwest Bottle-Fed Babies Ingest Cancer-Causing Weed Killer

WASHINGTON, DC (ENS) - Formula fed infants in 796 Midwestern communities are exposed to high levels of the toxic weed killer atrazine, the Washington based Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found. The herbicide contaminates tap water in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio, creating cancer risks up to 20 times higher than federally mandated limits.
In a report released Wednesday, EWG details measurements of atrazine up to 14 times the legally allowed annual average in some communities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has underestimated the health risks that atrazine and other contaminants pose to infants drinking formula mixed with tap water by a factor of 15, according to the study.
Atrazine, manufactured by Switzerland based Novartis, is the most heavily used herbicide in the United States. It is commonly applied by corn farmers in the Midwest to attack weeds at planting time. Rains can wash the chemical into waterways, where it makes its way into public drinking water supplies.
Parents may be unintentionally feeding their babies a toxic weed killer. (Photo courtesy Bottle Bundle) Atrazine is a known carcinogen that has been linked to several forms of cancer in rats, including uterine and mammary cancers.
The EPA has set maximum safe levels of atrazine at three parts per billion (ppb). Local water systems test for the chemical a minimum of four times a year - once each quarter. Atrazine levels must average less than three ppb over those four samples.
Many water utilities have adopted costly treatments to filter atrazine from water supplies, but it is difficult and prohibitively expensive to completely remove all traces of atrazine.
In its report, the Environmental Working Group contends that the EPA made an incorrect assumption about the exposure possible for infants. EPA safety standards assume that a bottle feeding newborn drinks the same amount of tap water per pound of body weight as an adult. EWG,s study shows that bottle fed infants may actually drink the adult equivalent of three and a half gallons of tap water a day.
In 796 Midwestern communities tested by EWG, 10.4 million people are drinking tap water contaminated with atrazine. By age one, the average bottle fed infant in those towns receives over 26 percent of his or her lifetime allowable dose of atrazine, the study says.
In some cities, the situation is much worse. In Kansas City, Kansas, these infants can get their entire legal lifetime dose of atrazine by about eight months of age. In 13 Midwestern towns, infants can exceed their allowable lifetime cancer risk through exposure to atrazine within the first four months of life.
Manufacturers of infant formula remove atrazine and other contaminants from the water used to make premixed, ready to feed formula. Expensive advanced filtration and separation processes purify the water in these products, making them considerably safer for infants than formula reconstituted with tap water.
The EPA and agricultural industry representatives say the study is merely a scare tactic, and that actual risks from atrazine are much lower than the EWG report states. But other federal agencies agree that the EPA made mistakes in calculating risks for children and infants.
In February, the Office of Children,s Health Protection Advisory Committee, a federal agency charged with studying risks to children, declared that the EPA,s atrazine regulations do not sufficiently protect children. In a report published in the Federal Register, the committee stated, "When EPA established the tolerances and 1991 drinking water standards for atrazine, children,s differential exposure was not considered and children,s differential susceptibility was not fully evaluated."
Under the Food Quality Protection Act, the EPA must revise its health standards for atrazine and other high risk pesticides by August 3, 1999. Yet earlier this year, the EPA announced that new regulatory limits for atrazine in tap water will not be proposed until 2001. Implementation of new rules could come much later.
In a statement, the EPA said it is studying exposure to atrazine as part of a pesticide review program and plans to complete its work by next summer. Results of that review will determine whether tighter drinking water standards are needed. "We are on schedule to meet all deadlines for reviewing pesticides under the new law," the EPA said.
The Environmental Working Group wants faster action. "This product is a serious threat to infants' health," said report author Jane Houlihan of EWG. "The government should be taking decisive action on it next week."
In Switzerland, where atrazine is manufactured, the safe water standards are 30 times more stringent than those in the U.S.
Government mandated safe levels in Swiss water systems require that no single test reveal more than 0.1 ppb of atrazine. The Swiss government cracked down on atrazine in 1984, before the U.S. government had begun to require water testing for the chemical. Other European countries have banned the chemical altogether.
In 1997, the EPA added atrazine to its list of the most toxic chemicals pesticides and herbicides in current use. EWG is calling on the U.S. government to ban atrazine, and placed a full page ad in Tuesday editions of "The New York Times" calling on Vice President Al Gore to support a ban.
"Water utilities are working hard and spending millions to lower the level of this toxic chemical in tap water. Why should they and their customers pay for the mess created by a multi-billion dollar foreign company? Atrazine should be banned by the EPA. It shouldn't be in our water to begin with," said EWG president Ken Cook.
The Environmental Working Group's staff of 18 researchers, computer experts and writers produce reports and articles and provide technical assistance and the development of computer databases and Internet resources for public interest groups and concerned citizens who are campaigning to protect the environment.The EWG report, "Into the Mouths of Babes," along with state reports on the risks from atrazine in individual towns, are available on line at: <