‘Strict’ pesticide rules fail to erase atrazine threat to water

Rachael Lallensack, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

In 2014, Doug and Dawn Reeves discovered the well supplying water to their home in rural Stoughton was contaminated with atrazine, despite the fact that they live in an area where use of the pesticide has been banned for 20 years.

During an Easter celebration that year, their son Jacob fell ill, his body swelling up. Then he developed a rash. After multiple hospital visits, a doctor at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison diagnosed Jacob, now 11, with juvenile dermatomyositis.

This inflammatory disease affects muscles, skin and blood vessels, afflicting just three of every 1 million children each year.

The cause of the disease is unknown, so Dawn Reeves went looking for answers.

She started with the well at their home about 20 miles southeast of Madison.

Testing revealed that the family’s water was contaminated with fertilizers and pesticides. Most surprising was the weed killer atrazine, which is banned from use in the area where the Reeves live. The chemical’s level was twice the state and federal drinking water health standard.

Follow-up testing by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection found 8.2 parts per billion of
atrazine — nearly triple the state health standard — present in the water they drank every day.

In a letter, DATCP warned “long-term exposure to atrazine may cause a variety of health problems, including weight loss, heart damage and muscle spasms.”

The chemical is an endocrine disruptor and has been tied to abnormal sexual development in animals. The endocrine system regulates blood sugar, reproductive systems, metabolism and development of the brain and nervous systems.

Atrazine has been one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States for decades. However, Wisconsin’s atrazine rules — described as the strictest in the country — have significantly cut use of the herbicide and led to a sharp decline in the number of wells tainted with the chemical.

But the federal government’s proposal to further restrict atrazine is facing pushback from agricultural groups in Wisconsin and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

Poisoned by the Well?

Testing of the Reeves’ well also detected dangerous levels of nitrate, which comes from nitrogen-based fertilizers, and low levels of the pesticide alachlor.

The results made Dawn Reeves believe Jacob’s sudden illness was caused by the water.

Although there is no direct evidence that supports her theory, the health effects of long-term consumption of water containing pesticides are “not completely understood,” according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The agency says, however, that exposure could increase susceptibility to “certain diseases, including cancer.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering further restrictions on atrazine. A recent EPA draft risk assessment found atrazine is dangerous to a variety of plants and animals both on land and in water.

Johnson has called on the agency to explain the rationale for the proposed rules, which he said would impose “harmful
restrictions on Wisconsin farmers.”

One-Third of Wells Contaminated

When it comes to pesticides in the water, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has found:

• One-third of private drinking water wells in Wisconsin had pesticide contamination.
• Nearly two-thirds of the more than 90 different pesticides used on Wisconsin crops lack a health standard for presence in drinking water.
• Atrazine restrictions have led to the increased use of other herbicides.

The Reeves family is among the roughly 940,000 Wisconsin households that rely on private wells for their water. There is no testing requirement for private well owners, which means “everybody’s on their own” when it comes to water quality, said Stan Senger, DATCP’s environmental quality section chief.

By contrast, public water supplies are tested for 36 contaminants found in pesticides, including atrazine and alachlor. The EPA sets these standards, and monitoring is enforced by the state DNR.

The most recent DATCP comprehensive survey of pesticides in groundwater was in 2007, and the results were disturbing. Of 398 private wells tested, 33.5 percent had detectable levels of a pesticide or a pesticide metabolite, which is formed when the active ingredient or “parent” chemical breaks down as it penetrates soil.

At the time, the agency tested for 32 active ingredients. DATCP is now updating the study and testing for 98 ingredients, Senger said.

Wisconsin regulators have long known the dangers of atrazine. In 1991, the state put in place a rule that allowed DATCP to set maximum application rates and prohibit atrazine use outright in certain areas. There are currently 101 prohibition areas in the state covering 1.1 million acres. The last was added in 2011.

DATCP spokeswoman Donna Gilson said the most recent round of testing has detected some “very localized groundwater problems.” Rather than create new atrazine-prohibition areas, which can take two years, Gilson said the agency has instead reached voluntary agreements with individual farmers near Spring Green and Reedsburg who agreed to stop using atrazine or simazine, a pesticide that share metabolites with atrazine.

Reporter Tierney King contributed to this report. This story was produced as part of The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and and Mass Communication reporting classes.