The Health Canada agency responsible for evaluating pesticides based on their health and environment risks, is about to decide the fate of atrazine.
Atrazine is a pesticide used extensively in corn production, but its widespread use is disconcerting. It’s known to change the gender of frogs and harm aquatic ecosystems, and it has been linked to birth defects, reproductive problems and cancer in humans.
Atrazine under review, but is Health Canada looking at?
Ecojustice launched a lawsuit in 2013 on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation and Équiterre which triggered a review of 23 pesticides banned in other countries, including atrazine, a powerful hormone disruptor that can cause harm at very low levels of exposure. Atrazine was banned in Europe in 2003 over concerns of widespread groundwater contamination.
There are currently 13 products containing atrazine that are permitted for use in Canada. They are commonly used on corn crops in Ontario, Quebec and parts of Manitoba. However, water contamination has also been reported in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan.
This ongoing review of atrazine is a unique opportunity for Canada to ban this harmful pesticide. Regrettably, the regulator’s proposed decision would keep atrazine registered, despite a large body of scientific evidence that shows it to have harmful effects on human and ecological health. The science is alarming, and should be enough to initiate a full ban.
A narrow review is a flawed review
The PMRA’s proposed decision only considers atrazine’s effects on ground and drinking water, excluding the risks it poses to ecological and human health. A pesticide cannot be approved unless the regulator persuades the health minister that both the health and environmental risks of a pesticide are acceptable.
Ecojustice, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), the David Suzuki Foundation, Équiterre and Environmental Defence have asked Canada’s pesticide regulatory agency to conduct a wider review that considers ecological risks, surface water contamination, and human health risks.
South of the border, Atrazine has its critics
A 2016 ecological risk assessment published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that atrazine threatens nearly every organism in areas of heavy use.
At the application rates permitted in Canada, the U.S. EPA’s risk assessment said atrazine poses unacceptable risks to fish, invertebrates and plants. In fact, Canadian thresholds considered acceptable for ground spraying on corn are five times higher than levels the U.S. EPA finds concerning for aquatic life. The EPA assessment also states that atrazine threatens the health of mammals, birds, reptiles and aquatic plants. This assessment builds on decades on scientific evidence, including the work of American biologist Tyrone Hayes showing atrazine effects on frogs’ reproductive systems, which Syngenta—the manufacturer of atrazine—has made multiple attempts to discredit.
Failure to consider effects to human and occupational health
In Canada, atrazine has been reported in surface water at levels that exceed safe concentrations listed in the EPA risk assessment. In fact, the EPA’s benchmark for a “concerning” concentration level is just 19 per cent of Canada’s current allowance for application on corn.
Frequently detected in raw and treated water, atrazine ends up in municipal drinking water. Many Canadians rely on surface water, including 81 per cent of Quebecers who source their drinking supply from surface water. Studies have found atrazine levels in surface water in Canada exceed the Canadian drinking water guidelines, as well as guidelines on protecting aquatic life. This exposure is particularly disturbing, considering scientific evidence links atrazine with certain types of cancer, reproductive problems and fetal development.
Beyond surface water contamination, Canada’s review did not consider the health risks for farm workers and farming communities, despite known concerns that these individuals are at heightened risk of exposure.
A legal mandate to protect our health and environment
There is a vast body of evidence that shows atrazine to be detrimental to human health and the environment. Without considering this knowledge, the Canadian government cannot make an informed decision on the future of atrazine.
Canada’s pesticide regulator has a ripe opportunity to follow the lead of Europe by instituting a ban. Without one, it could be years before the pesticide is reviewed again. The PMRA is expected to hand down its decision in March of this year. If all goes well, atrazine will be shelved for good.
Dr. Elaine MacDonald is senior scientist and program director of healthy communities at Ecojustice Canada. Karen Ross, Pesticides and Toxics Project Manager, Équiterre. Muhannad Malas is the toxics program manager at Environmental Defence. Kim Perrotta is executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians
for the Environment (CAPE).
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