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Posted on Wed, Aug 26, 2009 : 10:45 a.m.

Save My Sanity: Atrazine in the water

By Jen Eyer

Note: Save My Sanity is an occasional feature in which I examine a recent "scare story" and determine whether I think it justifies concern or not.

The headline from the New York Times couldn't have been more alarmist: "Debating How Much Weed Killer Is Safe in Your Water Glass."

Weed killer? In my water glass?? Oh God, I knew we should have replaced the cartridge for our faucet filter when it expired, instead of just taking the thing off, and eventually pitching it.

OK, deep breath. Let's see what the story is about.

For decades, farmers, lawn care workers and professional green thumbs have relied on the popular weed killer atrazine to protect their crops, golf courses and manicured lawns.

But atrazine often washes into water supplies and has become among the most common contaminants in American reservoirs and other sources of drinking water.

Now, new research suggests that atrazine may be dangerous at lower concentrations than previously thought. Recent studies suggest that, even at concentrations meeting current federal standards, the chemical may be associated with birth defects, low birth weights and menstrual problems.

Laboratory experiments suggest that when animals are exposed to brief doses of atrazine before birth, they may become more vulnerable to cancer later.

Great. Our kids are going to get cancer all because we got lazy (or cheap, can't remember which) and didn't replace the filter. And both kids were born in the summer, right after "atrazine season." They're doomed!

The story goes on to say that some communities have had sharp spikes of atrazine in their water, up to 59 parts per billion. The EPA requires water systems to notify residents if the yearly average exceeds 3 parts per billion. Because water systems are only required to test once a year, these spikes may not be detected.

However, the handy little map that goes along with the story shows that only 1.3 percent of Michigan's population has been exposed to atrazine in drinking water, compared with 16.3 percent in Florida, 40.6 in Ohio and 70.4 percent in Kansas.

OK, that's good (for us Michigan residents anyway). But still, this story says that lab animals who receive brief doses of atrazine before birth may be more vulnerable to cancer.

I looked online at Ann Arbor's latest annual water quality report and noticed that atrazine was not mentioned. Wondering why, I called Sumedh Bahl, the water treatment services manager.

"We don't have any," he replied. "We did a test in June 2009. We tested the reservoir water, and didn't find any in 2008 or 2009."

Bahl checked the city's annual reports as far back as 1996, and said atrazine has never been detected.

It seems far-fetched to imagine that we could be having brief, undetected spikes when the chemical has never been detected at all here.

So, nothing to worry about for Ann Arborites. But when we take our yearly visit to see my parents in Florida, maybe we'll stick to bottled water.

Your turn: Are you concerned about the quality of your tap water, and if so, do you use a water filtration system at home?

Photo courtesy of American Water Works Association.

Jen Eyer is on the Community Team at She can be reached at 734-623-2577 or, or you can visit her at the first floor office at 301 East Liberty.


Maggi Idzikowski

Thu, Aug 27, 2009 : 10:25 a.m.

We do have a remineralizing filter on our tap and a reverse osmosis filter in our shower. I don't think drinking bottled water is worth it -- plastic bottles leach chemicals, and reverse osmosis filters take out essential minerals. Thanks for this feature!


Wed, Aug 26, 2009 : 8 p.m.

I am nearly 60 with a lifetime of drinking unfiltered tap water and not a trace of cancer. Bottled water often comes from a public water system in another city - read THOSE studies. And do not forget what the discarded plastic bottles themselves can do to the environment. Oh - my mother also smoked and drank - I was over 11 pounds at birth and both my IQ and my SATs qualify me for MENSA. Don't believe everything you read.


Wed, Aug 26, 2009 : 2:34 p.m.

Jennifer, drill a deeper well.


Wed, Aug 26, 2009 : 10:57 a.m.

NSF International in Ann Arbor township on Dixboro Rd. tests and certifies both bottled water and water treatment systems. Their web site is a great resource for information on both.

Ann Arbor Resident

Wed, Aug 26, 2009 : 10:44 a.m.

Atrazine has been used as a herbicide on commercial farms for decades. Ciba-Geigy's agricultural chemical division (which now has a different corporate name after a couple of mergers and spin-offs was the main producer (over 80%) of the atrazine products (Sandoz was the other 20%) sprayed on these farms before it went off patent and started to be manufactured less expensively in Asia A lot of it has been applied to mid-west farm land (Wisconsin, Minnesota, etc). Unlike the active ingredient common herbicides such as Round-Up or another one of the very common herbicide active ingredients, dicamba, it is chemically very stable and stays chemically intact the ground for a long time. Thus, run-off is a long term problem that can't immediately be solved by simply discontinuing its use. It is also the most effective herbicide for large commercial crops (corn, wheat, etc) and is inexpensive so it is very attractive to farmers. As a result, they put a lot of pressure on governing bodies to allow its continued use. In some states, I particulary remember Wisconson for some reason, it had applied very heavily resulting in high soil and groundwater concentrations. This is continuously monitored by the EPA and local agencies. Due to these high concentrations, there are EPA maps that designate areas in which atrazine can't be applied to farm land. Although I am not a feverent supporter of organic farming and products ( a good idea that has been greatly confused and contaminated by marketing and vague laws, a topic for another discussion), this excessive use of atrazine makes a strong case for the organic way of farming. You might ask, how do I know this? I worked in agricultural chemistry for several years in the 1990s and worked directly with atrazine, dicamba, glyphosate and other active ingredients.


Wed, Aug 26, 2009 : 10:39 a.m.

Thanks for this. It's so funny that people think bottled water--which is NEVER tested for anything--is somehow safer than tap water. I'd love to see you guys run tests on bottled water because it is often pretty nasty, despite the high cost, pretty packaging, and accompanying environmental damage that goes into getting it to people.

Jennifer Shikes Haines

Wed, Aug 26, 2009 : 10:27 a.m.

Great feature! We live in Scio, and we do use a bottled water system because our well water is truly foul, even with a filtration system. It's one of the problems we're still having in our house. If anyone else has recommendations, I'd love to hear them!

Angela Smith

Wed, Aug 26, 2009 : 10:07 a.m.

I am really looking forward to the posts in this feature. Great to get a real look at what we hear and see reported elsewhwere! Thank you, Jen.