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A Water Rule the EPA Got Right

Contrary to reports, the EPA is not raising the limits on the level of a certain herbicide allowed in drinking water. Unfortunately, Tucker Carlson and others may have been taken in by left-wing propaganda on the issue.


- January 25th, 2020
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I’m a big fan of Tucker Carlson. Like his fellow disruptor, President Trump, he’s willing to take on all sides of the establishment, Left, Right, and the deep state. And, in my opinion at least, he’s almost always right over the target.

But in one particular case, an issue he addressed recently—the EPA’s review of the herbicide atrazine—he hit way wide of the mark, accusing the agency of risking the public health by loosening standards for atrazine in water.

As editor of JunkScience.com, I’ve worked on environmental regulatory issues for three decades now. No one would accuse me of being a fan of the EPA. In fact, I’ve sued the EPA, called for reforms, and otherwise endlessly written about the agency’s willingness to throw science under the bus to achieve its often left-wing political agenda. As a member of the Trump transition team on EPA issues, I developed a long list of badly needed reforms for the agency, many of which have been instituted.

But that doesn’t mean that EPA always gets it wrong.

The agency’s position on the chemical atrazine is one instance in which—despite its track record—the regulators appear to be coming out largely in the right place. First, a few baseline facts about what EPA’s review says and doesn’t say.

Contrary to some reports and Tucker’s shot on atrazine, the EPA is not raising the limits on the level of atrazine allowed in drinking water. These will remain exactly where they are now, which is an almost infinitesimal 3 parts per billion on a yearly average. Neither is the monitoring program coming to an end. Atrazine levels will continue to be monitored as before under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which requires testing for a large number of naturally occurring chemicals, microorganisms, and possible synthetic contaminants.

Here’s what’s changing: In 2003, EPA set up a separate Atrazine Monitoring Program (AMP) to more frequently sample drinking water in communities with heavy atrazine use to make sure the SDWA monitoring wasn’t missing anything. It wasn’t.

The AMP—which tested for both atrazine and its breakdown products—demonstrated a clear lack of health concerns. The vast majority of samples came in below 1 part per billion, none exceeded the SDWA standard, and the clear trend was declining atrazine levels over time. EPA reasonably decided that the extra monitoring wasn’t needed. The decision will be reviewed in a year.

In any case, monitoring will continue as always under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

It’s important to understand that EPA sets its limits on contaminants by building in huge safety margins. This is especially true for pesticides (herbicides are one kind of pesticide), where allowable levels are many orders of magnitude below what has been demonstrated in the lab to have “no effect.” At each point in the process, EPA assumes a “worst case” scenario and purposefully errs on the side of caution. This includes assuming maximum exposure to the most sensitive parts of the population (infants and pregnant women) and multiplying “uncertainty factors” together for any issue on which the science can’t give a definitive answer.

When the 3 parts per billion limit was set in the early 1990s, this created an “uncertainty” buffer, or margin, which was 1,000 times below the no-effect level. What the EPA said in its recently published review is that toxicological science has advanced considerably in the past 30 years, and that means many of the “uncertainties” the EPA built in back in 1991 are no longer uncertain and could, theoretically, be dispensed with. The EPA doesn’t say this, but if one were to calculate safety limits according to the up-to-date science, the allowable limit could easily be set above 500 parts per billion and still achieve a wide margin of safety.

But EPA isn’t going to do that. It’s keeping the 3 parts per billion. It works for farmers and the agency doesn’t see any compelling need to change it.

One could complain, perhaps, that if they were basing their regulations on the best science, they really ought to raise it; but it makes no sense to complain that EPA has done an incredibly thorough job and is accurately reporting out on their findings.

The problem is that environmental groups such as the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have, as usual, mischaracterized the EPA’s findings and in their news releases and seemingly conflated EPA’s drinking water limits with its ecological review, which has nothing to do with human health.

The eco-review does, in fact, recommend raising these eco limits in light of extensive new studies, but these limits are based on the effect of atrazine on algae, which sits at the bottom of the food chain for lots of aquatic wildlife. Algae, like most other plants, engage in photosynthesis to turn sunlight into energy. Atrazine works by disrupting photosynthesis in plants. Humans don’t do photosynthesis. The eco-limits don’t apply to drinking water and they will have no effect whatsoever on any human health issues.

If you read all this and still think the safety factors aren’t enough, think about the difference between drinking one cup of coffee, which is harmless and may possibly have positive health effects, and drinking 1,000 cups of coffee in one sitting, which would probably kill you.

If you’re worried about NRDC’s claims that atrazine is an “endocrine disruptor,” understand that this is only true in the sense that any food that contains naturally occurring phytoestrogens is an endocrine disruptor, including (and this is a short list) rice, beans, wheat germ, apples, carrots, coffee, tea, and—sorry to break it to you—beer. Most of these foods are thought to have positive health effects. Phytoestrogens like resveratrol and genistein—two famous “antioxidants”—are even marketed as health supplements, and there is evidence that they fight inflammation and may be protective against cancer.

If you still say that pesticides are yucky and you don’t want artificial chemicals in your diet, I’m sorry to tell you that you’re out of luck. All farmers who grow to scale, including organic farmers, use chemical pesticides, and they have for centuries. NRDC and EWG won’t tell you this, but organic farmers use older pesticides like sulfur, neem oil, and copper sulfate, which is highly toxic to people, plants and wildlife and is a known carcinogen. And because these “natural” chemicals are less targeted and less effective, they dump them on their fields in truly astounding quantities.

A final word about “big agriculture.” My first response is, “if only it still existed.” I carry no brief for ethanol mandates (which are stupid) and farm subsidies, but the political power of the “farm lobby” has become increasingly attenuated as, ironically, farming has become ever more efficient and fewer and fewer people have any direct connection to the land. If you doubt this, pick up a copy of the Des Moines Register sometime, which has effectively become an environmentalist, anti-farmer mouthpiece.

Meanwhile, the power of the environmentalist movement grows ever greater by the day. Many of the “nonprofit” anti-pesticide and anti-GMO groups are the same, and funded by many of the same money sources, as those that are pushing the global warming agenda, including the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Bloomberg Family Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the McArthur Foundation, as well as the organic industry and the trial bar.

Environmental “nonprofits” that are in part or wholly devoted to a “Green New Deal”-style attack on modern agriculture have a war chest in the neighborhood of $10 billion a year, which goes into producing nothing but environmentalist propaganda that barely disguises its true anti-capitalist, big-government agenda.

I’d take everything they say with a heavy helping of salt—which according to NRDC standards, is also an endocrine disruptor.

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