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PANUPS: Herbicides & Infant Health

                         P A N U P S
                   Pesticide Action Network 
                        North America
                       Updates Service
                   EMAIL: panna@panna.org

Herbicides Linked to Infant Health Problems

July 8, 1997

The herbicides atrazine, cyanazine and metolachlor may be 
linked to a range of adverse health effects, including 
respiratory distress, cerebral palsy and impaired 
development. According to a recent study of drinking water 
contamination in Iowa, these three herbicides were each 
associated with higher community levels of intrauterine 
growth retardation (slow fetal growth resulting in low birth 
weight) among newborns. The researchers said that slow fetal 
growth is a predictor of increased infant mortality and is 
the second leading known cause of fetal death. 

The researchers pointed out that this study is based on data 
at the community level rather than on data collected from 
individuals, and stressed that their findings should be 
considered preliminary until more detailed epidemiological 
studies on individual exposure levels are carried out. 
However, they stated that previous studies have indicated 
herbicides can cause adverse effects on growth and 
development in laboratory animals and that atrazine has been 
linked to endocrine disruption. These studies suggest that 
the reported link in Iowa between herbicide consumption and 
slow fetal growth is biologically plausible.

The study examined 13 communities in southern Iowa served by 
the Rathbun Regional Water Association, a water system that 
supplies drinking water exclusively from the Rathbun 
reservoir. It compared levels of contaminants in the Rathbun 
communities' water with drinking water from other communities 
in southern Iowa. The communities were similar in population 
size, education level, income and other demographic 

Between 1984-1990, drinking water in the Rathbun system had 
more positive detections of alachlor, atrazine, cyanazine, 
metolachlor and 2,4-D than drinking water in other 
communities surveyed. The mean level of atrazine in Rathbun 
was 2.2 micrograms/liter during this period compared to 0.8 
micrograms/liter for other surface water supplies examined. 
For cyanazine, the difference was 1.4. micrograms/liter in 
Rathbun compared to 0.7 micrograms/liter in other surface 

The study also compared birth records of babies born to 
mothers living in communities served by the Rathbun reservoir 
with babies whose mothers lived in the other southern Iowa 
communities. Researchers found that communities in southern 
Iowa served by the Rathbun reservoir had a higher rate of 
slow fetal growth than the other communities included in the 
study. During 1984 to 1990, the percentage of live births 
with slow fetal growth was 11.2% in the Rathbun communities 
compared to a range of 6.4%-6.9% in the other communities. 
Statistical analyses revealed that atrazine, matolachlor and 
cyanazine were each significant predictors of community rates 
of slow fetal growth. The researchers stated that a strong 
causal relationship cannot be inferred, however, owing to 
limitations in the study design.

Atrazine, cyanazine and metolachlor are widely used 
herbicides in the U.S. According to a recent review of 
pesticide use in the North American Great Lakes Basin, 
metolachlor, atrazine and cyanazine are, respectively, the 
first, second and seventh most used pesticides by weight in 
the region. Due to concerns that atrazine and cyanazine pose 
serious health and environmental risks, the U.S. 
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put them in Special 
Review to examine their hazards and benefits in 1994. 
Cyanazine was subsequently removed from Special Review 
because it is being phased out -- DuPont, its manufacturer, 
is withdrawing all uses in the U.S. by the end of 2002. EPA 
expects to complete atrazine's Special Review by 1999. EPA 
considers atrazine, cyanazine and metolachlor to be "possible 
human carcinogens."

Sources: Intrauterine Growth Retardation in Iowa Communities 
with Herbicide-Contaminated Drinking Water Supplies, 
Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 105, No. 3, March 
1997; Reducing Reliance on Pesticides in Great Lakes Basin 
Agriculture, 1997, World Wildlife Fund; Jeff Morris, special 
review manager, EPA, personal communication, July 7, 1997; 
U.S. EPA Office of Pesticide Programs List of Chemicals 
Evaluated for Carcinogenic Potential, February 19, 1997.

Contact: PANNA

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