Sandy’s Garden ... atrazine

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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Last summer, a very good friend of long standing entertained my wife and me to afternoon tea in a hotel which considers itself to be one of the world’s great and which is located not 100 miles from Falkirk.

Apart from the fact that the afternoon tea seemed ridiculously overpriced for what it was, the duty head waiter sought to impress us by showing off a bottle of 50+-year-old Scotch which, he claimed, the bar sold for £1000 a nip.

The faded and tired label with the date ‘1971’ suggested that the Scotch had actually been bottled that year and I was surprised, to say the least, that this professional waiter seemed unaware of the fact that Scotch, which improves if it is kept in barrels, does not improve at all in the bottle.

If it was bottled, say, 12 years after it was distilled, it is still 12-year-old Scotch, which, if anything, may be slightly stale in comparison with recently bottled 12-year-old whisky. But there the matter ends.

Setting aside the silly claim that any Scotch is worth £1000 a nip, Scotch is Scotch is Scotch and this antique potion will be neither better nor worse for me with the passage of time.

Now, closer to home, if you were to examine my own stock of garden chemicals – weed-killers, fertilizers, cleansers and so on – you may well find a number with faded and tired labels which suggest they have been in my possession for a number of years.

‘So what?’ you may well wonder. Surely most chemicals will be like Scotch; they won’t get any better for being kept in a sealed container, but they won’t get any worse. This is, generally, true. But, unlike Scotch, an unknown hazard may be lurking there in the form of a chemical which was perfectly legal in a product designed for the amateur gardener to use when that product was manufactured but which has since come under suspicion of having unwanted and potentially dangerous properties which have led to it being banned in the United Kingdom.

One such is atrazine. Once widely used in agriculture, atrazine is, to quote Wikipedia, “Used to stop pre- and post-emergence broadleaf and grassy weeds in major crops. The compound is both effective and inexpensive, and thus is well-suited to production systems with very narrow profit margins, as is often the case with maize. Atrazine is the most widely used herbicide in conservation tillage systems, which are designed to prevent soil erosion.”

Well, let’s change the tense and say that atrazine was once a very widely used herbicide in the UK. But atrazine, which was the active ingredient in many herbicides, leached through the soil into groundwater, made its into wells in rural areas without piped mains water and so found its way into drinking water.

And, after studies seemed to link maternal exposure to atrazine in drinking water with low foetal weight and heart, urinary, and limb defects in infants, the chemical was banned throughout the European Union in 2004, although garden chemical manufacturers were allowed three further years in which to use up existing stocks.

Recently, atrazine has returned to the news columns of newspapers, for it is being claimed that it is responsible for a serious health problem in a cluster of infants born in a very limited area south of the border.

Some governments outside the EU still allow the chemical’s use in herbicides that you can buy over the Internet. Don’t – unless and until this matter is resolved in atrazine’s favour.

And if, like me, you are guilty of keeping unused chemicals in the garden shed for longer than you perhaps should, bear in mind that a number of once-common ingredients in these products are now banned.

Maybe we should all discard old chemical products timeously in accordance with the maker’s instructions, of course.