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Kansas Gov. Kelly sides with Trump, urges Biden's EPA to back down from herbicide rules

Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service

Scientists say atrazine maker Syngenta has long muddied the public's understanding of risks related to its product in an effort to delay stricter regulations

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has picked a fight with the federal government’s scientists.

She says atrazine, a popular weed killer that pollutes waterways, needs to remain handy to Kansas farmers without new rules coming from Washington.

A Democrat running for reelection in a deeply Republican state, she sided with the Trump administration's loosening of rules for spraying the chemical in areas where it has built up in the local water.

In a news release, she said new federal restrictions would be “burdensome regulations (that) don’t improve safety.”

Atrazine — banned in Europe — is one of the most common chemical contaminants in surface water and is especially prevalent in the Midwest.

It’s mostly used on corn, a crop that ranks second only to wheat in Kansas.

The Trump administration loosened the rules for atrazine, ignoring the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2016 conclusions about the chemical’s harms. The EPA now proposes aligning the rules with scientific findings, after President Joe Biden ordered federal agencies to review their public health regulations and “listen to the science.”

The EPA is proposing measures to reduce atrazine use and runoff in areas where the chemical has accumulated in surface water, and to restrict crop-dusting.

A growing body of scientific studies have found the herbicide hurts frogs, fish and plants that play important roles in the food chain.

Some epidemiological studies have found associations between atrazine and premature childbirths, malformed genitalia or other effects for children’s development.

Independent scientists say the chemical’s maker, Syngenta, has for years sought to intimidate and discredit them, cast doubt on work documenting the chemical’s risks and muddy the facts with research that it pays for. Court documents back these claims.

Professor Jason Rohr, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame, says Syngenta wants to protect the use of an herbicide that’s long been a leading seller.

“They have been clearly manufacturing uncertainty and bending the science,” Rohr said. “If you can just convince our public that we don’t have enough information or that the information is not clear, then status quo remains.”

Rohr documents Syngenta’s actions in a paper published last year in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. His past research found that a key Syngenta-funded research review arguably misrepresented dozens of studies on the effects of its chemical.

He compares Syngenta’s strategy to the way Big Tobacco undercut evidence that smoking harms people, and how politicians obfuscate climate change science.

Syngenta offers a “textbook example” of using these tactics to delay unwanted government regulations, he says.

Last week, Kelly urged the EPA to reject its proposed rules for atrazine and keep reviewing the science.

She argued that about 7,000 studies have established the chemical as safe.

That is a talking point promoted by Syngenta, and it leaves independent scientists who have scoured the peer-reviewed literature scratching their heads.

“I have no idea what the 7,000 studies would be,” said Eleanor Rogan, a professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and founding chair of the school’s Department of Environmental, Agricultural and Occupational Health.

In the scientific community, the effects of atrazine on humans are not the closed case that Syngenta suggests. Rogan and her colleagues have found associations between atrazine and childhood cancers using public water data. They continue to study the matter.

“We are now collecting water samples ourselves, focusing on areas that have high levels of pediatric cancer,” she said.

Atrazine is the second-most common herbicide used by U.S. farmers as of the EPA’s 2017 review of market data. It is second only to glyphosate, a suspected carcinogen.

Kansas is one of the states with the highest use of atrazine, maps from the U.S. Geological Survey show.

Syngenta argues that atrazine is good for the environment because it helps farmers who need to control weeds but don’t want to till their soil.

Herbicides play an important role for most farmers who stop plowing. Reduced tilling benefits the environment by slowing down the loss of topsoil and nutrients, leaving fungi and other soil life intact, and reducing farmers’ diesel usage.

But scientific research has found that atrazine can weaken frogs and other water life, making them more susceptible to diseases. More and more amphibians are succumbing to disease, one of the drivers behind a decline in their global numbers.

Scientists care about amphibians because they play a vital role in the food chain — by eating insects and algae, for example, and feeding birds and mammals — and because their natural bodily substances feature in medical research.

Research also suggests atrazine hurts aquatic plants, which are critical to underwater life and feed a wide variety of creatures.

Experiments with laboratory animals suggests the chemical is toxic to hormonal glands and nervous systems, impacting reproductive and developmental health.

Most U.S. farmers use chemicals to beat back weeds. Atrazine is used on food and commodity crops, primarily corn, an $80 billion industry. Corn is the country’s single biggest crop and provides 95% of its feed grain for livestock.

“Atrazine has been an important tool that controls weeds destructive to many of my state’s most vulnerable agricultural products,” Kelly wrote to the EPA, “since it was first registered as an herbicide over 60 years ago.”

The EPA’s tighter regulations would “overly burden agricultural producers and likely raise commodity prices,” she said.

The National Corn Growers Association considers atrazine a critical tool “that allows farmers to do more with less.” It called on farmers this summer to protect atrazine by writing to the EPA about how regulatory changes would affect them.

The European Union banned atrazine two decades ago.

In 2016, the EPA reviewed the science and published a 500-page risk report that warns of repercussions for mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians and land and water plants. The findings were “based on the results from hundreds of toxicity studies.”

In 2018, after Trump took office, it released a follow-up report on human health documenting evidence that atrazine interferes with hormonal glands in animal studies that are relevant to humans. But The New York Times reported that the agency simultaneously dismissed a dozen epidemiological studies linking the chemical to serious diseases. The Trump administration and chemical makers opposed considering disease trend data for reviewing product regulations.

The Trump administration loosened certain rules for applying atrazine to crops, while lowering the amount that people can apply to lawns.

Now operating under the Biden administration, the EPA wants to tighten requirements related to crops. Among other changes, it presses farmers to use less of the stuff or take other measures to prevent runoff if they live in areas with specific levels of atrazine in the water.

The administration also wants to ban crop-dusting with atrazine, Chemical and Engineering News reports. And it wants farmers to hold off on spraying atrazine when heavy rain makes it more likely that the chemical will wash into nearby bodies of water instead of soaking into the soil.

Syngenta sold more than $2 billion in herbicides annually in the U.S. as of 2010, Mother Jones reported at the time.

Details of Syngenta’s battle against one Berkeley scientist emerged in court documents a decade ago related to a lawsuit filed by water systems in Kansas and other Midwestern states with atrazine in their drinking water.

Syngenta settled the lawsuit for about $100 million without admitting wrongdoing.

The Chinese-owned company continually claims that its chemical isn’t banned in the European Union, even though it is, investigative reporters at The New York Times and other news outlets have confirmed.

Company documents released by a federal court show Syngenta worked with consulting firms to craft independent-looking pieces for publication in newspapers and to pay experts to write favorably about atrazine.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen covers the environment for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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Celia comes to the Kansas News Service after five years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. She brings in-depth experience covering schools and education policy in Kansas as well as news at the Statehouse. In the last year she has been diving into data reporting. At the Kansas News Service she will also be producing more radio, a medium she’s been yearning to return to since graduating from Columbia University with a master’s in journalism.