A class action lawsuit representing water districts throughout Illinois cites recent research contending the herbicide atrazine in drinking water is unsafe at any level, even measurements well below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. Atrazine, an herbicide often used on corn fields, is linked with breast and prostate cancers and reproductive and neurological problems.

A class action lawsuit representing water districts throughout Illinois cites recent research contending the herbicide atrazine in drinking water is unsafe at any level, even measurements well below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.


Attorney Stephen Tillery said Peoria is one of the higher population areas with atrazine contamination in water supplies.


Tillery said the U.S. EPA conducted more than 40 private meetings with the leading manufacturer of atrazine to devise a testing protocol that manipulatively distorts atrazine levels in water.


Illinois American Water Co. reports atrazine levels of 0.5 parts per billion in Peoria tap water, a level recent research has linked with low-birth weights but a level well below the 3 parts per billion considered safe by the EPA.


Atrazine, an herbicide often used on corn fields, is linked with breast and prostate cancers and reproductive and neurological problems.


Tillery filed the class action suit earlier this month in the Third Judicial Circuit Court in Madison County on behalf of a rural sanitary district near Edwardsville and other water districts throughout the state. The suit was filed against atrazine manufacturer Syngenta Crop Protection Inc., with headquarters in Switzerland, and Growmark Inc. with principal offices in Bloomington doing business under the "FS" name.


Syngenta attorney Alan Nadel said Syngenta will discredit health and environmental concerns linked with atrazine by using research from the World Health Organization and National Cancer Institute.


Nadel said Tillery's lawsuit "has been pending for five years. We moved to dismiss the lawsuit as without merit. It took three years for the judge to rule on that motion which was denied."


Tillery cited a report issued last month by the National Institutes of Health that links low-birth weight and atrazine levels as low as 0.1 parts per billion.


Atrazine is banned in a number of European countries, including Switzerland, because of the potential for groundwater contamination, but it is widely used in the United States on corn. It is also used by the landscaping industry.


Tillery said atrazine runoff is a major source of drinking water contamination, especially for districts that rely on lakes and rivers.


Illinois American Water Co. gets 40 percent of its water from the Illinois River. The company provides water to Peoria, Pekin and other central Illinois communities.


Lori Horstman, water quality supervisor with Illinois American, said some atrazine is filtered out of river water and some is treated with powdered carbon to remove the chemical to levels considered safe by the EPA. The highest levels of atrazine are detected in water from April through July when it is applied on corn fields and carried to rivers and streams by runoff.


Tillery said atrazine does not readily break down in water. When it does, it forms 16 separate chemicals, some of which are more toxic than the mother chemical atrazine.


"This is something that has to be known at Syngenta," Tillery said.


The target of his suit is not water districts but the chemical manufacturer. He is asking Syngenta to compensate water districts for the cost they incur in removing atrazine, a cost that could run over $1 billion nationwide on an annual basis.


The lawsuit is not seeking to ban atrazine. A decision to make the herbicide illegal would have to come from Congressional action.


Tillery said in an unusual move, EPA and Syngenta started working together on water samples in 128 sites on a weekly and biweekly basis with Syngenta testing for atrazine levels.


He said that frequency of testing is a deliberate attempt to present average numbers that mitigate elevations of atrazine levels that occur each spring and summer. He cites scientific evidence indicating low levels of atrazine over a prolonged period of time in drinking water may be more damaging to human health than previously suspected.


The Natural Resources Defense Council has formally requested that the EPA cancel atrazine's registration and revoke all atrazine tolerance levels. A 2003 letter from NRDC to the EPA office of pesticide programs charged EPA with violating its own special review regulations "by meeting repeatedly and privately with atrazine's registrant and cutting a special private deal with the registrant that is contrary to the public interest."


Keith Bolin, a Bureau County farmer and president of the American Corn Growers Association, said he has chosen to use atrazine because he believes the most common alternative, using genetically modified organisms, or GMO, corn is potentially more damaging to health and the environment.


"These recent findings (about atrazine) are troubling, and we should all stand up and take note of this. What we as farmers do in a community can't be justified if it adversely affects health," Bolin said. "If atrazine is damaging water quality, no amount of profitability can justify its use."


Bolin said it is economically unfair to an individual farmer who decides not to use atrazine because of environmental concerns while neighboring farmers can elect to continue using it. A decision to ban atrazine would end that unfair disadvantage, he said.


European countries that banned atrazine five years ago have not documented any yield reductions. Other alternative herbicides were found to be equally effective in controlling weeds and maintaining yields.


Karl Tupper, a scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America, said the National Institutes of Health study released last month is significant because atrazine has long been linked to birth defects in amphibians, but this study presents a correlation with human births.


"These results show something is going on even with very low levels of atrazine," Tupper said. "I think use of atrazine needs to be curtailed and ultimately ended. The amount of atrazine used in this country is way out of control."


Once a chemical is approved for use in this country, it is very difficult to remove it from the market, he said. In Europe, by contrast, chemicals can more easily be removed as a precautionary measure.


"Atrazine is a ubiquitous water contaminant in the Midwest. If you live in the Midwest, drinking the water is a problem. Why take the risk when the economic benefit (of using atrazine) is not great?" Tupper said. "Atrazine is a great example of a chemical with widespread human exposure and a lot of evidence suggesting problems with breast cancer, prostate cancer and low birth weight. The EPA needed more data, but then it put Syngenta in the position of collecting data. That's putting the fox in charge of the hen house. It's a huge conflict of interest and a great incentive not to find atrazine in water."


Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250 or choward@pjstar.com.


MORE: A new tool was released Thursday by the U.S. Geological Survey indicating atrazine levels in the watershed. It is an interactive Web site allowing viewers to access any specific location in the country to find median, mean and elevated levels of atrazine. Go to http://infotrek.er.usgs.gov/warp/ to find atrazine levels in the watershed in central Illinois.