Risky business

August 24, 2003

FROGS HAVE been trying to tell us something for quite a while now. Each spring there seem to be fewer of them, while increasingly those that do appear are severely deformed; no legs, extra legs, a double set of reproductive equipment.

Part of nature's early warning system, frogs are sounding the alarm that they and many other creatures - possibly including humans - are being poisoned in ecosystems all over the world. Studies suggest at least part of the damage is caused by fertilizers and pesticides used on golf courses, farm fields and well-manicured suburban lawns. A leading culprit is believed to be the widely used weed killer atrazine.

But the Bush administration has dragged its feet for so long on calls to ban the chemical that the federal courts should sharply restrict atrazine use until action is taken.

At risk is not only the environment but human health as well. It is far safer to err on the side of caution than to gamble that the evidence against atrazine so far is wrong.

The Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing that evidence and other available data to determine whether the United States should join four other nations - Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden - where atrazine has been banned.

But the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, suspects the agency is playing slow-down ball because of political pressure on the White House from the pesticide industry. That tactic is consistent with the Bush strategy for deflecting demands to act on global warming: The president declares himself in pursuit of "sound science" and defers decisions indefinitely.

In fact, an EPA spokesman told The Sun's Dennis O'Brien that despite studies fingering atrazine as an environmental hazard, the agency had been unable to find a consensus on the exact damage it causes.

Now, the NRDC has gone to the U.S. District Court in Baltimore seeking help in goosing the agency along. In a lawsuit filed under the Endangered Species Act, the group is asking the court to order restrictions on the use of atrazine until the EPA finally decides whether to ban it.

Such restrictions are clearly called for. Twenty-one endangered species, including four types of sea turtle in the Chesapeake Bay, are believed to be harmed by atrazine. Further, limiting atrazine use would pose no insurmountable hardship; alternative herbicides are available that could do the job more safely. Farmers also have the option of changing their planting methods so they would no longer require weed killer at all.

If the court acts quickly enough, the restrictions could be in place before next year's planting season begins.

Frogs aren't mentioned in the lawsuit because they are not considered an endangered species in Maryland. But that may only be a matter of time.

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