Ban abroad looms over a spring ritual

EU decision to bar atrazine puts focus on herbicide's use here

April 16, 2006|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

As birds sang in blossoming pear trees outside the McGinnis farmhouse in northern Baltimore County, a tanker truck with a 75-foot-wide boom rumbled across the family's fields, spraying chemicals.

The nozzles were shooting phosphorus to fertilize the cornfield. In a few days, workers plan to make a second pass to spray atrazine, a herbicide that kills thistle and other weeds that sprout between rows.

About 75 percent of American corn farmers over the past half-century have made a springtime ritual out of spraying atrazine, using about 70 million pounds every year as a labor-saving alternative to tilling to remove weeds. Farmers such as Wayne McGinnis argue that it is harmless and makes their farms more productive.

But as the European Union prepares to ban the herbicide by 2007, renewed attention is being focused on its safety here. The EU decided to take the chemical off the market as a precaution after it was detected in drinking water. Environmental groups in the U.S. have filed lawsuits claiming that the compound should be banned here because researchers not only have detected it in drinking water, but also have linked atrazine to deformities in frogs and lower sperm counts in men.

To settle one of the lawsuits, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed last month to study whether atrazine is killing loggerhead turtles and other endangered species in the Chesapeake Bay.

"The potential impact of atrazine is very big," said Tyrone Hayes, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who has studied the compound. "We see a chemical castration of amphibians, through a loss of testosterone. This is an indicator that we all need to be very concerned."

Hayes' research concluded that atrazine is sterilizing male frogs and contributing to a decrease in the number of amphibians worldwide. He said other researchers have published studies associating exposure to the herbicide with higher rates of prostate cancer in men.

The EPA believes that atrazine is not likely to cause cancer in humans, and that it is "unlikely there are significant adverse ecological effects" from using the herbicide properly, said Steven Bradbury, director of a division of the EPA's office of pesticide programs.

But the federal agency believes Hayes' study and others are enough to suggest "it's a reasonable hypothesis" that amphibians might be harmed by the herbicide, Bradbury said. The question deserves further study, he said.

The leading manufacturer of the liquid compound denies it hurts humans or wildlife.

"The EPA has determined that it would not pose adverse effects to humans or the environment if it's used according to label," said Sherry Ford, spokeswoman for an American branch of the Swiss firm Syngenta, "which means not going over the amount specified on the label."

To McGinnis and other farmers, calls for a ban on atrazine do not make sense because they have been using it for decades without obvious harm.

McGinnis, 69, said he has been spraying atrazine on his family's 1,200 acres for three decades. He said his family is in its sixth generation of good health on the farm, with his parents living into their 90s.

"We are right in the middle of spraying this stuff. If it was going to hurt anybody, it would hurt us," McGinnis said, as he played with his 3-year-old granddaughter in front of the family's almost 200-year-old, stone-and-wood farmhouse.

His son, Jay McGinnis, 38, said the frogs are so numerous in the pond in front of their home that guests have a hard time sleeping at night because the chirping is so loud.

"The frogs are everywhere," said Jay McGinnis, who gave up a career as a mortgage broker to help keep alive his family's farm near White Hall. "If you come out here, you can hear them singing all night long."

The farming industry, which has employed former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to lobby for the continued approval of atrazine, has argued that growers would lose at least $1 billion a year if the chemical were banned.

Wayne McGinnis said eliminating atrazine might also hurt the Chesapeake Bay. The chemical kills weeds so efficiently it allows "no till" farming, he said. That means tractors don't need to pull claw-like devices through the fields twice each spring to rip up weeds. That process digs up soil that runs with rainfall into nearby streams and, eventually, the bay.

"Without atrazine, it would mean more time and labor, an increase in fuel use to till the fields, and more sediments running into our streams and reservoirs," Wayne McGinnis said.

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, said farmers are right when they say that "no till" agriculture helps keep mud and silt out of the Chesapeake Bay. But Boesch added that "the jury's still out" on whether trace levels of the herbicide harm marine life.

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