HILO — Hawaii County Water Supply officials say levels of atrazine in island wells are far below safe thresholds, even as 19 members of the state House on Thursday called for a task force to investigate the effects of the herbicide on human health.
Ten of Hawaii Island’s 22 water wells show traces of atrazine, all below the limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Water Department deputy manager Keith Okamoto. He said the department tests annually for chemicals and monthly for bacteria.
Atrazine isn’t found in wells in population centers such as Hilo and Kona, but has been detected in wells along the Hamakua coast and Ka‘u, where agriculture is the dominant industry, Okamoto said. The organic chemical was used for decades in the state to fight weeds in sugarcane, pineapple and seed corn crops.
“They are all well below the EPA maximum contaminant level, and it looks like they are on a downward trend,” Okamoto said.
The 19 House members signed on to resolutions asking the director of the state Department of Health to head a task force on the effects of atrazine on human health.
The Atrazine Task Force is charged with reporting its findings, including any proposed legislation, to the Legislature no later than Oct. 13. Legislation resulting from the task force’s recommendations will be considered during the 2014 Legislative session. The task force would include representatives appointed by the House speaker and Senate president, in addition to a representative of a community environmental group.
“It is crucial that the state make every effort to protect our residents, our aina and our oceans from the potential adverse effects of chronic atrazine exposure,” said Rep. Cynthia Thielen, an Oahu Republican who signed on to the measures. “Historically in Hawaii, waiting to investigate pesticide or chemical exposure has resulted in needless tragedy and expensive cleanups. We need more information, and the time to do this is now.”
A 2005 study by the state Department of Health Safe Drinking Water Branch showed some level of atrazine in wells on all major islands. A spokesman said Thursday that the study hasn’t been updated.
Potential health effects from ingesting atrazine include loss of appetite, salivation, muscle spasms or tremors, uneven breathing, liver damage and thyroid problems, according to the report.
The resolutions note that Germany and Italy banned the use of atrazine in 1991, and the European Union followed suit in 2003. Atrazine has been under continued EPA evaluation and is scheduled for a registration review beginning this year.
Research has indicated that atrazine exposure may be associated with reproductive problems in men, irregular menstrual cycles in women and low birth weight and small head circumference in infants. In laboratory mammals, abnormal reproductive system development, impaired prostate gland formation, and abnormal breast tissue development have also been found, Thielen said in a news release.
Additionally, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service reported that atrazine may have dangerous effects on fish.
A report by Santa Monica, Calif.-based environmental consultant Soil/Water/Air Protection Enterprise indicates that Hawaii is ranked 10th among states for the percentage of its population exposed to atrazine in drinking water.
“I understand that the state Department of Agriculture does not test for atrazine because there is a shortage of inspectors. Companies using atrazine in Hawaii are policing themselves in regard to EPA application compliance,” Thielen said. “The fact that atrazine is banned in Europe due to groundwater contamination risks should be a red flag for all of us.”