WASHINGTON (AP) - An environmental group says the levels of weed killer found in tapwater in 245 Midwestern communities are far too high, even if they meet government standards.
Federal officials are considering tougher rules for such pesticides in both food and drinking water, the Environmental Protection Agency said Monday, with some action expected by 1999.
The study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group focused on atrazine, a chemical sprayed on corn to kill weeds, and several related chemicals. In high doses, atrazine has been linked to cancer.
Using a new food protection law, the environmental group developed its own, tighter standard of what it considered dangerous levels of atrazine. It then concluded that tapwater in 245 Midwestern communities contains that level or more.
That would affect about 4.3 million people in communities in nine states, the environmental group says. Most of the towns were in the Corn Belt: 77 in Illinois, 70 in Ohio and 49 in Missouri.
The other 49 communities were scattered through Delaware, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland and Nebraska. A list of specific communities was not available.
The atrazine tapwater standard used in the study - 0.15 parts per billion on average over a year's time, compared to 3 parts per billion now - has not been adopted by any government agency.
But EPA officials said Monday it is likely that atrazine levels would be tightened by 1999 as the new Food Quality Protection Act is implemented. In addition, EPA is examining atrazine and related chemicals to determine how dangerous they are.
"We have to reassess the food standards for all the pesticides," said Dr. Lynn Goldman, the agency's assistant administrator for pesticides. "We've got to add in the drinking water risk with the dietary risk."
The environmental group contends that atrazine and other pesticides repeatedly show up in tapwater with unknown long-term health effects.
"We know it passes straight through conventional water treatment systems," said president Ken Cook.
But some regulators call the conclusions exaggerated.
In Ohio, officials note that only one of the 70 communities cited by the group - the town of Sardinia - has failed to meet the current federal standard of 3 parts per billion. Using the food law to speculate about a new water standard doesn't make sense, they say.
"If there was something to worry about, we'd be the first ones to notify people," said John Sadzewicz, chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's water division.
The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which represents most city water systems, supports the study's conclusion that the government take more action to stop pesticides from entering the water supply.
City systems would have to spend up to $3 billion to upgrade treatment systems if the current atrazine standard were tightened significantly, said Diane Vandehei, executive director of the group. Chemical companies should be forced to foot part of this bill instead of consumers, she said.
But pesticide makers dismiss the study as speculative, alarmist and aimed mainly at gaining political support for forcing them to pay for improvements.
"The water is absolutely safe," said Chris Klose, spokesman for the American Crop Protection Association. "The study is without scientific merit, and it's damaging to the public trust."