The chemical degrades in the environment, but the degradation process is longer than the application cycle. Because of its continual application every year, the waters of the Mississippi River basin, which drains about 40% of the lower United States, discharge approximately 0.5 million kg (1.2 million lbs.) of atrazine per year to the Gulf of Mexico. Atrazine easily attaches to dust particles and has been found in rain, fog, and snow. As a result, it has contaminated groundwater and surface water in regions where it isn’t used. The EPA states that up to 3 parts per billion (ppb) of atrazine in drinking water is acceptable, but at this concentration it definitely affects frogs that swim in the water.
Other studies around the world have confirmed this. For example, in Switzerland, where atrazine is banned, it commonly occurs with a concentration of about 1 ppb, and that is sufficient to change some male frogs into females. In fact, atrazine can apparently cause sex change in frogs at concentrations as low as one-thirteenth of the level set by the EPA for drinking water. Of particular interest and importance is the process that causes the changes in leopard frogs.
We begin the discussion with the endocrine system, composed of glands that secrete hormones such as testosterone and estrogen directly into the bloodstream, which carries them to parts of the body where they regulate and control growth and sexual development. Testosterone in male frogs is partly responsible for development of male characteristics. The atrazine is believed to switch on a gene that turns testosterone into estrogen, a female sex hormone. It’s the hormones, not the genes, that actually regulate the development and structure of reproductive organs.