Second Most Used Herbicide Linked To Birth Defect

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Atrazine, the second-most used herbicide in the United States, is associated with a birth defect called gastroschisis, according to a Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) study published in JAMA Network Open.

With this birth defect a baby's intestines, and at times other organs, extend through a hole next to the belly button.

Previous studies have found an association between atrazine and gastroschisis, but those studies were limited to the state and county level. The national study led by VUMC found that county-level atrazine use was associated with increased odds of gastroschisis.

"According to government reports, each year more than 70 million pounds of atrazine are used in the United States," said the paper's first author Sunaya Krishnapura, MD candidate, class of 2025, at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

"Our results suggest that higher levels of atrazine use in a mother's county of residence were associated with increased odds of an infant being born with gastroschisis," she said.

Primarily known for its use in commercial agriculture, atrazine is also used to control weeds on highways and residential lawns. It has been reported to be associated with birth defects, infertility, preterm birth, and an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

At present, 44 countries, including the European Union (EU), have banned or are phasing out atrazine due to concern for its negative effects on human health.

"The results from these prior studies, as well as the data from our new research, suggest that investing in stricter atrazine monitoring programs in groundwater/drinking water, exploring alternatives to atrazine, and reexamining policy surrounding atrazine use may be warranted," Krishnapura said.

The authors reported that rates of gastroschisis were highest in the Midwestern region of the U.S. where atrazine use was similarly the highest compared to other Census regions.

"Gastroschisis is a common diagnosis in neonatal intensive care units, but the underlying cause of this birth defect has remained elusive," said Stephen Patrick, MD, MPH, William R. Long Director of Child Health Policy and attending neonatologist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.

"Our study found that counties who used more atrazine, a commonly used herbicide, also had higher rates of gastroschisis. While this is just a piece of the puzzle, it builds on existing research that has raised concern about the herbicide," he said.

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