Ecological risk assessment of atrazine in North American surface waters

Keith R. Solomon, David B. Baker, R. Peter Richards, Kenneth R. Dixon, Stephen J. Klaine, Thomas W. La Point, Ronald J. Kendall, Carol P. Weisskopf, Jeffrey M. Giddings, John P. Giesy, Lenwood W. Hall, W. Marty Williams

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865 Scopus citations


The triazine herbicide atrazine (2 chloro-4-ethylamino-6-isopropyl-amino- s-triazine) is one of the most used pesticides in North America. Atrazine is principally used for control of certain annual broadleaf and grass weeds, primarily in corn but also in sorghum, sugarcane, and, to a lesser extent, other crops and landscaping. Atrazine is found in many surface and ground waters in North America, and aquatic ecological effects are a possible concern for the regulatory and regulated communities. To address these concerns an expert panel (the Panel) was convened to conduct a comprehensive aquatic ecological risk assessment. This assessment was based on several newly suggested procedures and included exposure and hazard subcomponents as well as the overall risk assessment. The Panel determined that use of probabilistic risk assessment techniques was appropriate. Here, the results of this assessment are presented as a case study for these techniques. The environmental exposure assessment concentrated on monitoring data from Midwestern watersheds, the area of greatest atrazine use in North America. This analysis revealed that atrazine concentrations rarely exceed 20 μg/L in rivers and streams that were the main focus of the aquatic ecological risk assessment. Following storm runoff, biota in lower-order streams may be exposed to pulses of atrazine greater than 20 μg/L, but these exposures are short lived. The assessment also considered exposures in lakes and reservoirs. The principal data set was developed by the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitored residues in 76 Midwestern reservoirs in 11 states in 1992-1993. Residue concentrations in some reservoirs were similar to those in streams but persisted longer. Atrazine residues were widespread in reservoirs (92% occurrence), and the 90th percentile of this exposure distribution for early June to July was about 5 μg/L. Mathematical simulation models of chemical fate were used to generalize the exposure analysis to other sites and to assess the potential effects of reduction in the application rates. Models were evaluated, modified, and calibrated against available monitoring data to validate that these models could predict atrazine runoff. PRZM-2 overpredicted atrazine concentrations by about an order of magnitude, whereas GLEAMS underpredicted by a factor of 2 to 5. Thus, exposure models were not used to extrapolate to other regions of atrazine use in this assessment. The effects assessment considered both freshwater and saltwater toxicity test results. Phytoplankton were the most sensitive organisms, followed, in decreasing order of sensitivity, by macrophytes, benthic invertebrates, zooplankton, and fish. Atrazine inhibits photophosphorylation but typically does not result in lethality or permanent cell damage in the short term. This characteristic of atrazine required a different model than typically used for understanding the potential impact in aquatic systems, where lethality or nonreversible effects are usually assumed. In addition, recovery of phytoplankton from exposure to 5 to 20 μg/L atrazine was demonstrated. In some mesocosm field experiments, phytoplankton and macrophytes were reduced after atrazine exposures greater than 20 μg/L. However, populations were quickly reestablished, even while atrazine residues persisted in the water. Effects in field studies were judged to be ecologically important only at exposures of 50 μg/L or greater. Mesocosm experiments did not reveal disruption of either ecosystem structure or function at atrazine concentrations typically encountered in the environment (generally 5 μg/L or less). Based on an integration of laboratory bioassay data, field effects studies, and environmental monitoring data from watersheds in high-use areas in the Midwestern United States, the Panel concluded that atrazine does not pose a significant risk to the aquatic environment. Although some inhibitory effects on algae, phytoplankton, or macrophyte production may occur in small streams vulnerable to agricultural runoff, these effects are likely to be transient, and quick recovery of the ecological system is expected. A subset of surface waters, principally small reservoirs in areas with intensive use of atrazine, may be at greater risk of exposure to atrazine. Therefore, it is recommended that site-specific risk assessments be conducted at these sites to assess possible ecological effects in the context of the uses to which these ecosystems are put and the effectiveness and cost benefit aspect of any risk mitigation measures that may be applied.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-76
Number of pages46
JournalEnvironmental Toxicology and Chemistry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1996


  • Aquatic
  • Atrazine
  • North America
  • Risk assessment
  • Surface water


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