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Kansas growers say activist groups twisting EPA atrazine data to alarm consumers

Three media events on Aug. 23 and 24 highlighted activists' efforts to raise public concern about the herbicide atrazine. The New York Times, Huffington Post and National Resources Defense Council all released reports about atrazine on Sunday and Monday. The stories were based on data from a monitoring program that Syngenta, the maker of atrazine, entered into with EPA in 2003. The Atrazine Monitoring Program is an intensive monitoring program currently focusing on about 100 community water systems located primarily in the Midwest.

The Environmental Protection Agency's maximum contaminant level for atrazine at 3 parts per billion based on an annual average in public drinking water. Atrazine is among a list of 87 drinking water contaminants routinely monitored by the EPA. Jere White, executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association and Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers Association said results of the two testing programs should not be used to confuse consumers.

"The focus of the AMP program is different than the normal water sampling that is done to determine the annual MCL for drinking water systems," White said. "This study is focused on areas with higher atrazine usage--basically a closer look. The EPA set a guideline under this program of 37.5 ppb atrazine plus three metabolites (breakdown products) over a 90-day period as a benchmark for a level of concern."

The activist groups used two sets of data to cause concern among consumers, White said.

"You can do anything with numbers. There are spikes, but those spikes were taken into consideration by EPA when the 3 parts per billion annual drinking water level for atrazine was set. That's why it is an annual average and not a daily or weekly number. But to then take data from an entirely different program, and suggest that the levels were above the EPA's MCL for atrazine is simply misleading."

In its July 2009 update, EPA stated, "Through its review of this data, the Agency has confirmed that none of the systems have exceeded OPP's level of concern, a 90-day average of 37.5 parts per billion (ppb) of atrazine and its degradates. Concentrations below this 90-day average are considered to be safe."

"If you look at the data, you see that atrazine levels in raw (untreated) water have decreased. Farmers are using practices that reduce the amount of runoff from fields, and that keeps chemicals out of surface water," White said. "This is actually very good news, which has gone unreported."

Atrazine is crucial to the success of no-till farming operations that have a wide range of environmental benefits. No-till is a practice that leaves crop residue, like corn stalks, in the field to cut down on soil erosion and runoff of fertilizers and farm chemicals.

"When you talk about soil conservation and reducing runoff, you have to talk about no-till farming practices," White said. "This practice is making a real difference when it comes to conservation. But many growers say without residual weed control that atrazine offers, they would not be able to continue their no-till practices. Farmers have a good story to tell, producing more with less. For example, look at what corn producers have done in the last 10 years. For the same bushel of corn produced in 1987, today our land use is down 37 percent, soil loss is down 69 percent."

For more information on KCGA and KGSPA, visit ksgrains.com.

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