In another break with Bush administration policies, the Environmental Protection Agency said last week it will investigate the health effects of one of the nation's most widely used weed-killers, atrazine.
The agency's announcement, one of several recent moves to crack down on pollution, came on the heels of reports showing that U.S. drinking water is widely contaminated by atrazine.
The EPA said it will evaluate the weed-killer's "potential cancer and non-cancer effects on humans." It will also look at atrazine's potential links to birth defects, low birth weight and premature births.
Underscoring the shift from the Bush anti-science approach, the EPA said it will seek advice from an independent scientific panel, whose meetings will be open to the public.
The review will also take into account results from the National Cancer Institute's Agricultural Health Study, which is expected to be published next year. That study is investigating the effects of environmental, occupational, dietary and genetic factors on the health of agricultural workers and their families.
The EPA's atrazine review is slated to be completed next fall.
Atrazine is a herbicide that is widely used in agriculture and on lawns and golf courses.
In a report released this summer the Natural Resources Defense Council charged that the EPA had ignored widespread atrazine contamination in the nation's water supply. The NRDC said the chemical is "a known endocrine disruptor, which means that it affects human and animal hormones. It has been tied to poor sperm quality in humans and hermaphroditic amphibians."
Another report, from the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, revealed that atrazine has exceeded federal safety limits in drinking water in four states: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kansas. Atrazine is commonly used on corn, so it is no surprise that those are all major corn-growing states.
More than 40 water systems in those states showed spikes in atrazine levels that normally would have triggered automatic notification of customers, the report said. Residents were not alerted in any of these cases.
Both reports were based on Environmental Protection Agency records from 2003 to 2008 that the organizations obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
"Water that's being polluted by atrazide is being drunk by you and your neighbors," Paul Wotzka, a Minnesota farmer and former hydrologist for the state, said in a video produced by the Huffington Post Fund.
The New York Times reported in August that an analysis of EPA data showed that 40 percent of the nation's community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once last year, and dozens of chemicals have been detected at unsafe levels in drinking water.
Obama administration departments and agencies responsible for safeguarding the environment and public health face the challenge of cleaning up eight years of neglect or deliberate sabotage by Bush appointees who made protection of corporate profits their priority.
The NRDC report was titled "Poisoning the Well: How the EPA is Ignoring Atrazine Contamination in Surface and Drinking Water in the Central United States."
Jennifer Sass, a scientist and an author of the NRDC report, said the EPA had been "ignoring some very high concentrations of this pesticide in water that people are drinking and using every day. This exposure could have a considerable impact on reproductive health. Scientific research has tied this chemical to some ghastly impacts on wildlife and raises red flags for possible human impacts."
"People living in contaminated areas need to be made aware - and the regulators need to get this product off the market," she said.
The report showed that the Bush EPA, by using a yearly average to measure levels of atrazine in drinking water, allowed dangerously high peaks of the chemical to occur.
The agency did not consider one-time spikes in atrazine to be dangerous to humans, but according to the Huffington Post Fund report, many scientists think otherwise. One study, published this year in the medical journal Acta Paediatrica, found that birth defect rates in the U.S. were highest for women who conceived during months when atrazine levels were spiking.
"If you happen to become pregnant in June, you care about the levels in June, not in January," said Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist at the University of Rochester who has studied atrazine's effect on semen quality and development.
"For pregnant women, you have a critical period of a couple of weeks to a couple of months," Swan said. "If you have a peak exposure in that period, that's what's relevant to the pregnancy."
"Atrazine is obviously very controversial and in widespread use, and it's one of a number of substances that we'll be taking a hard look at," Stephen Owens, the new EPA assistant administrator for prevention, pesticides and toxic substances, told The Times this summer.
He said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson "has made clear that we need to take a close look at decisions made in the previous administration, and be certain about the science behind those judgments."
In addition to investigating atrazine's health effects, the EPA says it will work with interested groups to inform the public more quickly about drinking water monitoring results.
Photo: An Iowa farmer sprays atrazine on his corn field. (AP/The Des Moines Register, Harry Baumert)