Atrazine is a widely used pesticide and one of the most controversial. There have been reports over the years that have raised concerns for people’s health and the environment, especially certain studies related to amphibian feminization and others about human endocrine system disruption.
But are these reports accurate? In this article, we’ll answer this and more questions regarding the safety of this common pesticide.
What is Atrazine?
Atrazine is a synthetic chlorotriazine herbicide used to control annual grasses and broadleaf weeds. It basically works by preventing photosynthesis and eliminating weeds even before they emerge.
Since its approval in 1958, Atrazine has been primarily used for agriculture, with the main crops being corn, wheat, soybean, and sugarcane. But agriculture is not the only use case. Atrazine is also used to prevent these types of weeds in residential lawns, highways, railroads, and even golf courses.
The Controversy Around Atrazine
In some studies, atrazine was linked to the disruption of the endocrine system in humans as well as animals. This means that according to these studies, the pesticide in certain concentrations can cause negative effects on the hormones of people, which lead to more serious health issues.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a review of the pesticide and concluded that atrazine residue is not a safety concern in humans. Plus, the agency also said that this pesticide doesn’t produce feminization in amphibians.
The EPA establishes safe limits for this pesticide. However, it is a fact that concentrations higher than the safe limit have been found in water bodies close to areas that use Atrazine. All studies agree that high exposure to the pesticide is harmful to humans. Considering the serious effects it can have, many people oppose its use. Especially since people could be ingesting higher doses than reported.
Below we explore more about the effects of Atrazine on humans and the environment.
Human Exposure to Atrazine
Some studies have focused on the effects of exposure to Atrazine in animals and humans. There is still debate on the long-term effects of residue consumption. But it is known that high exposure can result in significant personal injury.
According to one study, high Atrazine exposure can potentially cause tumors, various types of cancer, organ damage, and birth defects, among other issues in humans. The same report mentions that there is no definite conclusion on whether Atrazine causes cancer in humans. However, keep in mind that other pesticides have been linked to cancer.
You can get exposed to Atrazine through ingestion, skin contact, and inhalation.
What are the Symptoms of Atrazine Exposure?
Symptoms range from mild to severe, and they depend on the amount and length of exposure. Atrazine can cause minor skin irritation, redness, or swelling when it comes into contact with the skin or eyes.
In the case of ingestion, it also varies. Atrazine is typically considered safe when consumed at low levels by the EPA guidelines. More research is needed to know the exact effects of long-term exposure to low levels of atrazine. However, higher doses accidentally consumed might cause more serious symptoms, such as nose bleeds, facial edema, salivation, and drooping eyes.
Plus, people can also get chills, feel exhausted, have weak muscles, tremor, and have trouble breathing.
Studies on animals and humans also show that prolonged atrazine exposure can cause harm to the liver, kidneys, lungs, endocrine system, and more.
Atrazine's Effects on the Environment
Atrazine can have an impact on a number of biological systems, including soil, water bodies, and non-target plant and animal species. The reason is that it enters the environment through agricultural spraying. These are the main effects on the environment.
Atrazine can take many months to degrade in soil, especially in cool, dry conditions, increasing the possibility of groundwater and surface water contamination. Due to the herbicide's poor affinity for soil particles, it is also vulnerable to flow after intense rainfall and may end up in surrounding water bodies.
Given that atrazine has been found in numerous rivers, lakes, and streams all over the world, its mobility in water is a serious concern. Due to its sluggish rate of deterioration in water, it remains there for a long time, having an effect on aquatic ecosystems and perhaps lowering water quality.
This can then affect the flora and fauna that depend on these water sources. Fish, amphibians, and other aquatic species may be at risk since it persists in water bodies over time. As we mentioned before, the study that mentions the feminization of amphibians due to atrazine exposure still is a source of debate.
But humans can also be affected by the contamination of water sources. This could increase the overall exposure of people to this pesticide since it could be present in food and water
There are several studies that prove exposure to atrazine can have a negative impact on wildlife, including mammals, birds, insects, amphibians, and other species.
Atrazine in non-lethal quantities has the potential to interfere with animal reproduction, change hormone levels, and cause abnormal behavior in some species. For example, atrazine has been connected with several bird species producing fewer offspring.
In higher levels, atrazine has been found to cause organ failure and death in rats. All of the evidence suggests that atrazine is a concern for animal wildlife in high exposure. But even low exposure can impact the animal population in some species.
Although atrazine is intended to target particular weed species, because of its broad-spectrum nature, it can also affect surrounding plants. In particular, aquatic plants may suffer. As we mentioned before, there have been concerning levels of this pesticide in water sources.
Atrazine can also affect the microbial communities in the soil, which are crucial to the cycling of nutrients and the health of the soil. The effects of the herbicide on these bacteria may cascade to affect soil fertility and plant growth. As a result, atrazine use over an extended period of time may change the ecosystems of soil and weaken agricultural areas as a whole. This was observed in a study done in Brazil.
Are You Exposed to Atrazine?
As a consumer, there is a chance that you are exposed to atrazine through crops that have been using this pesticide or even through your local water supply. But this doesn’t mean that your health is being affected. The government assures that atrazine is harmless in low concentrations.
This isn’t to say that the pesticide is safe. It’s clear that higher concentrations have negative effects on health and also that the pesticide has contaminated water sources to toxic levels. So the safest thing is to avoid this pesticide in general.
Homeowners who use atrazine products for their lawns and gardens can also be exposed at larger levels if they are not cautious. Make sure you read the label on your pesticide and follow instructions accordingly. People with private wells that use atrazine should also be careful and test their water regularly
Obviously, the people who are most exposed to this pesticide are the farmers. Farm workers should always take the necessary precautions and use the correct safety equipment to limit exposure as much as they can. If you are a farmer who uses this pesticide, it’s important to stay up to date with the studies of it so you don’t experience any symptoms.
In any of these cases, if you know that atrazine is used in your community and experience one of the symptoms mentioned in this article, it’s best to visit a doctor.
Does Atrazine Exposure Cause Cancer?
There is no definitive answer. One study found no higher incidence of cancer among atrazine applicators. Another review of atrazine by the European Journal of Cancer Prevention concluded that atrazine was unlikely to cause cancer in humans. Plus, the EPA categorizes atrazine as not likely to be carcinogenic to humans because it does not modify or harm DNA in humans or animals.
On the contrary, some studies showed that atrazine caused tumors in animals. And many other pesticides are linked to cancer.
Government and Regulatory Agency Actions on Atrazine
The EPA has done risk analyses to determine the effects of atrazine on humans and numerous wildlife species. The result of these reviews concludes that in low quantities, atrazine is not harmful to humans. However, it can have negative effects on wildlife and the environment.
To ensure safety, the EPA has established regulatory limits for atrazine residues in food and drinking water. The EPA also has regulations to reduce dangers to non-target plants and animals.
The effects of this pesticide are in constant review by the EPA and other organizations studying it, but outside the regulatory guidelines, there have been no recent legal actions or bans by the U.S. government.
Atrazine is a very common pesticide, which means it's going to continue to be controversial. With all of the studies available at the moment, it's clear that atrazine can have negative effects on human health. But a variety of studies conclude that short-term exposure at low levels seems relatively harmless for humans. Still, more research still needs to be done on humans to get the full picture.
Atrazine can also have negative effects on the environment.
People who want to avoid the ingestion of this pesticide should avoid crops from farms that use atrazine and also stay up to date with news on water contamination.
Environmental Health Perspectives. Characterization of Atrazine-Induced Gonadal Malformations in African Clawed Frogs (Xenopus laevis) and Comparisons with Effects of an Androgen Antagonist (Cyproterone Acetate) and Exogenous Estrogen (17β-Estradiol): Support for the Demasculinization/Feminization Hypothesis.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Atrazine.
National Pesticide Information Center. Atrazine.
Microbes and Environments. Impact of Atrazine Exposure on the Microbial Community Structure in a Brazilian Tropical Latosol Soil
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. ToxFAQs™ for Atrazine.
International Journal of Ecosystem. Atrazine and Human Health.
European Journal of Cancer Prevention. Atrazine and cancer.
Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. Atrazine acts as an endocrine disrupter by inhibiting cAMP-specific phosphodiesterase-4.