EPA Investigates Link Between Cancer and Atrazine, the Chemical Behind the Cane

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Flickr: parhessiastes
Sugar Cane: Harmless plant or serious accomplice?
​These years have not been kind to the proverbial Floridian wallet: If Madoff didn't take your money, then Rothstein probably did, and good luck selling that four-bedroom for more than the price of a Lego pirate ship. Now, Florida's own cash crop, sugar cane, is under fire as the Environmental Protection Agency reviews studies this week that link the #1 sugar cane herbicide, atrazine, to cancer and birth defects.

Atrazine is regularly used to enhance corn, sorghum, and sugar cane, with about 90 percent of all Florida sugar cane being treated with the herbicide. Congressional supporters tell The News-Press that farmers would lose up to 40 percent of their crop without the popular herbicide.

However, studies have found links between atrazine-laden drinking water and birth
defects in people, as well as gender defects in frogs. In fact, the European Union banned atrazine seven years ago. Despite having renewed approval of atrazine in 2006 -- a recent review in EPA years -- the Agency has dedicated this week to a deeper look into the science. A list of the studies that the EPA is reviewing can be found in the public docket.

"Based on this evaluation, the Agency will decide whether to revise its current atrazine risk assessments and whether new restrictions are necessary to better protect health and the environment," EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said in an email. Essentially, they're seeking advice from the independent FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel to gauge how serious a cancer risk the chemical is.

Meanwhile, the Florida Sugar Cane League has been busy informing congressmen just how important atrazine is to the state's agricultural economy. "We use it by the book, by the instructions provided -- it's a very important product for the good, sound, quality production of sugar cane," says Ryan Weston, executive vice president of the FSL.

In 2008, Florida grew $442 million worth of sugar cane, half the value grown nationwide. Clewiston, in Hendry County, and Belle Glade are the epicenters of the crop.

"Food production in the U.S. and the world is somewhat dependent on the help of chemicals," Weston says. "Without enhancements the world would not be able to feed themselves."

Weston noted begrudgingly that the EPA gave atrazine the stamp of approval in the most recent review, but declined to comment on why the herbicide had come under another attack so soon. As for alternatives, should the EPA ban it, "[atrazine] is probably the only cost-productive chemical at this time."

Kemery said that new scientific study results, combined with documented proof that drinking water contains atrazine, prompted the EPA to reconsider its endorsement. "Atrazine's reevaluation process has always been dynamic, not static," he said.
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