U.S. EPA announced the start today of a review of an herbicide used heavily to protect crops, golf courses and lawns.
The agency is weighing a possible revision of its risk assessment for the herbicide, atrazine.
Steve Owens, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, said the review is spurred by Administrator Lisa Jackson's interest in improving the management and assessment of chemical risks.
"As part of that effort, we are taking a hard look at the decision made by the previous administration on atrazine," Owens said in a statement.
Atrazine is one of the most common contaminants found in U.S. drinking water. Recent studies have linked the chemical to sexual abnormalities in frogs and fish, but EPA has maintained that there is not enough evidence to restrict use of the pesticide.
Part of the debate centers around health risks caused by exposure to low levels of the chemical. Some studies suggest that small amounts of atrazine in drinking water could be linked to developmental problems and birth defects.
EPA's review will focus on atrazine's potential for causing cancer, birth defects, and premature and low-weight births. The agency plans to examine data generated since 2003 from laboratory and population studies and seek advice from an independent science advisory panel.
Mae Wu, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the emphasis on noncarcinogenic effects could help clarify the low-dose issue because endocrine disruption is just as likely at low doses as at high ones.
"This is a great first step toward the agency hopefully doing what needs to be done and what we've called for repeatedly to minimize risk of atrazine," Wu said. "The agency is finally going to take a look at those issues ... and hopefully seeing a connection that is bad."
EPA plans to finish its evaluation of the pesticide by September 2010 and seek a peer review then. The agency also plans to seek public comments about how to spread the word to utility customers about results of atrazine monitoring in their water supplies.
Syngenta AG, a leading atrazine manufacturer, said it continues to stand behind the safety of the herbicide and that it expects EPA to make a positive decision based on sound science.
"EPA has looked at atrazine extensively, and other respected regulatory authorities have looked at it extensively, and they've all come to the same conclusion," said Sherry Ford, a Syngenta spokeswoman. "We look at a transparent review as a part of the normal regulatory process at EPA, and we will participate fully."