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Gender Bending Chemical in Illinois Drinking Water

By JoshMogerman in Miscellaneous on Apr 18, 2010 7:00PM

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Want to make people uncomfortable at your next dinner party of family gathering? Bring up endocrine disruptors, a class of chemicals that act much like human hormones that have been getting a lot of attention of late. There’s nothing like stories of chemically castrated frogs, eggs developing in testes, or baby bottles that slow development of reproductive parts to make every guy in the room cross his legs and change the topic of conversation.

But there has been more and more talk of the prevalence of endocrine disrupting chemicals in our water, just look at the excellent expose from Michael Hawthorne in today’s Tribune. The piece looks at growing concern over the health implications of atrazine, a pesticide that has become the most commonly detected chemical in American waterways (found in most streams and rivers in the U.S. and every watershed where the EPA has looked for it). And despite assertions from its Swiss manufacturers, a growing number of independent scientists are painting an alarming picture of a chemical that could have significant impacts on children’s developing nervous and reproductive systems. The impacts can be seen in wildlife too, including a highly publicized recent experiment in which male frogs, raised in atrazine-laced water, became female, eventually able to mate and breed with other males. Other studies have shown reduced testosterone production and the aforementioned eggs popping up in uncomfortable spots.

The Trib article highlights a number of downstate communities where atrazine levels in drinking water regularly spikes to 10 times the legal level of contamination around the spring corn-planting season. But because the EPA relies on an average contamination numbers for the entire year, the water is considered acceptable and residents are not told to purchase readily available filters for their protection---a significant problem from pregnant women and developing children. The Trib points to the problem with atrazine studies on humans in highlighting an Indiana University study that found increased prevalence of nine birth defects in babies whose time in utero corresponded with the spring planting season between April and July (though it should be pointed out that epidemiological tools cannot nail the atrazine connection completely without conducting experiments on humans).

Today's article follows a number of other high profile reports on the chemical from the New York Times, Huffington Post’s new investigative fund, and an in-depth investigation from a well-known national green group.

While atrazine has not been found in Chicago water, the chemical is commonly used on farms around the collar suburbs and water has been contaminated throughout the Midwest. Other chemicals with similarly feminizing hormonal properties are also troublingly ubiquitous. Last year Alderman Flores introduced a ban on baby bottles containing Bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical used to harden plastic that a growing font of research shows to be dangerous. It was unanimously passed last May. Similar gender-bending concerns have been raised about phthalates, another chemical common in plastic baby toys. A recent study found traces of the chemical in the urine of 80% of infants.

While discussions of endocrine disruptors like atrazine and BPA are uncomfortable, the Trib article points clearly to the need for more information on these troubling toxics. The Obama administration is re-evaluating atrazine in light of the new studies and calls have come from groups around the country for a ban on the weed killer similar the European Union’s or Chicago’s BPA ban.