In 2014, Doug and Dawn Reeves discovered the well supplying water to their home in rural Stoughton was contaminated with atrazine, despite the fact that they live in an area where use of the pesticide has been banned for 20 years.

During an Easter celebration that year, their son Jacob, fell ill, his body swelling up. Then he developed an unusual rash. After multiple hospital visits, a doctor at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison diagnosed Jacob, now 11, with juvenile dermatomyositis.

It is a rare inflammatory disease that affects muscles, skin and blood vessels, afflicting just 3 out of every 1 million children each year, according to the American College of Rheumatology.

The cause of the disease is unknown, so Dawn Reeves went looking for answers as to why the second youngest of their five children suddenly fell ill. She started with the well at their home about 20 miles southeast of Madison.

Results from Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene found the family’s water was contaminated with three fertilizers and pesticides. Most surprising was the weed killer atrazine, which is banned from use in the area where the Reeves family lives. It was found at twice the state and federal drinking water health standard.

Follow-up testing by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection found 8.2 parts per billion of atrazine — nearly triple the state health standard — present in the water they drank every day.

In a letter, DATCP warned that “Long-term exposure to atrazine may cause a variety of health problems, including weight loss, heart damage and muscle spasms.”

When it comes to pesticides  — including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides — in our water, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has found:

— One-third of private drinking water wells in Wisconsin had pesticide contamination, according to the most recent comprehensive statewide survey;

— Nearly two-thirds of the more than 90 different pesticides used on Wisconsin crops lack a health standard for water;

— Wisconsin’s atrazine rules, which are described as the strictest in the country, have significantly cut use of the herbicide and led to a sharp decline in the number of wells tainted with atrazine;

— But atrazine restrictions in Wisconsin have been replaced by increased use of other herbicides, whose effects on humans are still not well understood; and

— The federal government’s proposal to further restrict atrazine is facing pushback from agricultural groups in Wisconsin and and the state’s Republican U.S. senator, Ron Johnson.

Atrazine has been one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States for decades, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The pesticide manufacturer Syngenta advertises the weed killer as “safe for people, good for the environment and the economy.”

But atrazine is considered an endocrine disruptor and has been tied to abnormal sexual development in animals. The endocrine system regulates blood sugar, reproductive systems, metabolism and development of the brain and nervous systems.

A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency draft risk assessment found that atrazine is dangerous to a variety of plants and animals both on land and in water.

Testing of the Reeves’ well also detected 19.2 parts per million of nitrate — almost double the state health standard of 10 ppm — and levels of the pesticide alachlor below the state health standard. Nitrate, which comes from nitrogen-based fertilizers, is dangerous to pregnant women and can cause potentially fatal “blue baby syndrome,” in which blood cells lose the ability to carry oxygen.

The testing results made Dawn Reeves believe Jacob’s sudden illness was caused by the water. 

“In my opinion? It wasn't a (three-in-one-million) rare disease, it was atrazine poisoning to the extreme,” she said. “It blew (the doctors) away and all of their statistics out of the water. That’s why I'm leaning toward the poison. I really think it was the atrazine.”

Although there is no direct evidence that supports her theory, the exact health effects of long-term consumption of water containing pesticides are “not completely understood,” according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The agency says, however, that exposure could increase susceptibility to “certain diseases, including cancer.”

The EPA is considering further federal restrictions on atrazine, but has gotten strong opposition from agricultural groups, including some in Wisconsin.

Johnson has called on the agency to explain the rationale for the proposed rules, which he said would impose “harmful restrictions on Wisconsin farmers.”

One-third of wells contaminated

The Reeves family is among the roughly 940,000 Wisconsin households that rely on private wells for their water. There is no testing requirement for private well owners, which means “everybody’s on their own” when it comes to water quality, said Stan Senger, DATCP’s environmental quality section chief.

By contrast, public water supplies are tested for 36 contaminants found in pesticides, including atrazine and alachlor. The EPA sets these standards, and monitoring is enforced by the state DNR.