Atrazine – The A to Z of Herbicide Woes

Midwestern frogs are mysteriously changing sex, Floridian alligators are being born with small penises, and mass fish die-offs are becoming commonplace. What is going on?
Whatever it is, don’t drink the water!

The commercial application of herbicides and pesticides has contaminated our environment to an extent hitherto unimaginable. Chief amongst the chemicals in the limelight is atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides globally. Atrazine is most commonly applied to crop fields, however it is highly mobile, particularly in water, and has been detected in non-trivial concentrations up to 200 miles from where it was initially sprayed. Mimicking a nuclear explosion, atrazine enters the environment as an initial localized explosion, spreads across the landscape far beyond ground-zero, and persists with a slow half life much like radioactive decay. Thus even natural areas distant from agricultural operations (in either time or space) are not safe from the subsequent fallout. Of greatest concern is atrazine’s ability to stimulate the overproduction of estrogen; the production of too much estrogen causes all sorts of problems in reproductive physiology and can increase the risk of certain cancers. Emasculated crocs and three-legged frogs are just a taste of the harm that exposure can cause, and hint at the indiscriminate nature of atrazine’s destruction.

As is typical, people didn’t really care about this issue until it became clear the same issues may be manifest in human beings. Most differences between us and frogs (or alligators for that matter) are largely superficial, and our underlying physiology is remarkably similar. As such we would expect the effects of atrazine to be comparable, and indeed that is what we see. Sterility, feminization, and certain cancers have all been posited as human health risks to atrazine exposure. Contaminated drinking water should be cause for universal concern, however it is the workers (mostly from minority backgrounds) toiling away in the fields and the factories interacting directly with these chemicals who are exposed to the highest concentrations and most at risk. Thus, unregulated herbicide use is not only bad environmental policy, it is discrimination, pure and simple. Thankfully many nations and governing bodies have banned the use of atrazine. Even if we curtail atrazine use immediately however, adverse health effects may persist long into the future, potentially even passed down into generations that have had no direct exposure to the drug. A growing body of evidence links genital deformities in male babies to atrazine exposure of the mother (or even the grandmother!). We should all be a lot more worried.

It begs the question: why didn’t anyone test this chemical before rolling it out onto the market? Were there no environmental impact assessments? No clinical studies?

One would assume that the government takes responsibility in screening and approving chemicals for commercial use, but in fact, it is the manufacturing companies themselves that conduct virtually all of the safety testing. Such an honor system would be fine if we were dealing with a tea and biscuits donation box, but this is big business! I shall remind everyone of the recent Volkswagen emissions scandal. There is no honor among thieves… or CEOs apparently. When there is profit to be made, companies are happy to deceive consumers, even in matters concerning public health. It is important to bear in mind that this is not liberal rhetoric, this is economics 101. Any company that does not put the dollar first will be out-competed and driven into bankruptcy. In modern society we often consider our species as impervious to the the laws of nature, that we have somehow risen above the dog-eat-dog existence of ‘wild’ animals. This may harbor some truth for the individual, but at the level of the organization, in a capitalist free-market system ‘survival of the fittest’ plays out with the ruthless efficiency.

The scariest facet of this entire story, is that we are only looking at one chemical. One chemical out of hundreds of commercially used products. Atrazine is not special; it is simply the one we know most about. There is nothing to say that its detrimental impacts are somehow atypical or unrepresentative. Thus when we take atrazine and extrapolate out to evaluate to combined effects of all commercially used herbicides, the potential scale of the damage is terrifying. If that isn’t enough, most herbicides are actually purchased as a chemical cocktail, including a myriad of additional compounds that receive even less scrutiny than the herbicides themselves! As an example, surfactants, chemicals that facilitate the dispersal of an herbicide through water, are likely to pose as great a risk to aquatic communities of fishes and amphibians as that posed by the herbicide itself. Yet such extraneous ingredients remain largely unregulated.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but if I had to pick one*, I would be inclined to sit with the anti-Fluoride group, yelling at people (and traffic) about the poisoned water whilst simultaneously listing all the things in Coca-Cola that will probably also kill you. Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink. In this ‘chemical age’, you no longer have to be stranded at sea to appreciate the mariner’s sentiment.


*and they do rather amusingly seem mutually exclusive; I have sat and listened to a self-proclaimed UFO abductee lampooning Loch Ness monster sightings… go figure.