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Is Weed Killer in Drinking Water Dangerous? Govt. Is Letting the Chemical Industry Come Up with the Answer

EPA officials claim chemical industry's own evidence is 'scientifically more robust' than independent research.

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EPA officials said that with a limited budget the agency must rely heavily on research sponsored by parties with a stake in the outcome. The agency’s “test guidelines” governing how experiments are conducted -– the types and number of lab animals to be used, for instance. These provide sufficient safeguards against skewed results, officials said.

“Companies have a very strong incentive to follow the guidelines,” said EPA senior analyst Jordan. “We hope and think that we have written the guidelines with enough detail that it would be very difficult for someone to put a thumb on the scale, as it were, to slant the outcome, [or] to make something look safer than it is.

Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist specializing in health issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council, argues that relying on a company to test the safety of its own product – an “inherent conflict” of interest – is part of a larger pattern at the EPA. “It’s not just happening with atrazine,” she said.

Hundreds of herbicides, pesticides, and other chemicals are regulated by the EPA, whose decisions can have significant implications for public health and on the abilities of an array of multinational companies to earn billions of dollars in the U.S.

By law, industry influence often is built into the regulatory process of the federal government. At the Food and Drug Administration, for instance, clinical trials conducted by pharmaceutical companies are used to determine whether pills and devices work and are safe. Makers of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides also must pay for studies on their products. If they meet agency rules for conducting the testing, the EPA must accept them.

The ‘Funding Effect’

But is industry-funded research always reliable? A pair of scientists funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the EPA scrutinized a Syngenta-funded Canadian study –- one that is not on the EPA’s list. The scientists said they found numerous inaccuracies and misleading statements.

The scientists who questioned the study, University of South Florida biologists Jason Rohr and Krista McCoy, published their critique in the March 2010 issue of the journal Conservation Letters. In all, they tallied what they said were 122 inaccurate and 22 misleading statements, of which 96.5 percent appeared to support atrazine’s safety. The widely cited study focused on the herbicide’s effects on fish and other aquatic creatures.

Rohr and McCoy also asserted that the Canadian study, which was done in 2008, misrepresented more than 50 other studies. For example, it incorrectly suggested that only one scientist had demonstrated the chemical’s gender-altering effects on frogs. In fact, several other scientists demonstrated such effects.

The study dismissed one of Rohr’s papers as invalid, noting wrongly that the researcher had filtered atrazine out of a water tank while trying to assess the chemical’s effect on the aquatic organisms in the tank.

The Canadian study also misrepresented results, figures, and conclusions of other studies, according to the University of South Florida biologists.

Rohr, who served on an EPA advisory panel examining atrazine last year, told the Investigative Fund that he felt compelled “to set the record straight given the potential policy and environmental implications of these misconceptions and inaccuracies.”  

The author of the Canadian study, University of Guelph (Ontario) biologist Keith Solomon, declined to respond to questions from the Investigative Fund about his financial ties to Syngenta, the company’s influence, or the inaccuracies and mischaracterizations the South Florida biologists said they had uncovered. Solomon noted that other scientists had come to similar conclusions, and that governments in the U.S. and Australia had not found any significant risk to creatures living in water.

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