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Former farms yield tainted yards

Former farms yield tainted yards
By CAROLYN MOREAU
The Hartford Courant
July 18, 2000
Web posted at: 2:29 PM EDT (1829 GMT)

In this story:

The regulation debate

How much risk?


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HARTFORD, Connecticut (The Hartford Courant) -- What could be nicer than a new home on an old apple orchard, to grow vegetables and build a playscape for children on land where fruit trees once bloomed?

But the earth that yielded perfect rosy apples can also harbor dark secrets from its agricultural past. Bad pesticides like DDT and arsenic didn't just fade away after farm workers legally sprayed their crops. Decades later, the chemicals still linger in the topsoil of old fruit orchards and strawberry and tobacco fields.

Almost no one looks for these poisons when farms are swallowed by subdivisions today. Farmland, where pesticides now deemed too dangerous for use were once liberally and legally sprayed, does not fall under any state or federal regulation that would require testing before houses are built.

"We, as a society, have never dealt with these issues,'' said Richard Matheny, director of the Farmington Valley Health District. "The risk is from ingesting soil. We eat a lot more dirt than we think."

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Susan Peters certainly wasn't thinking of pesticides in 1976 when she went house hunting in Simsbury with her husband and a new baby. They bought a new contemporary cape on an old tobacco field, and thought it the perfect place to raise a family. They grew vegetables on their land and drank water from the well for seven years, never suspecting that it was contaminated. In 1978, their second child was born with a harelip and cleft palate.

In 1987, the couple, now living separately in Hartford and West Hartford, read in a newspaper that their old well in Simsbury and more than 50 others were contaminated with ethylene dibromide. EDB is a soil fumigant that was used on tobacco and vegetable fields. Prolonged exposure can cause cancer, birth defects and liver and kidney diseases.

"We both said `We knew it,'" said Peters, who is convinced that her youngest son's cleft palate was caused by his in utero exposure to the pesticide. "We cannot prove it, but it all fits together.''

The regulation debate

In a few areas of the country, health and environmental officials are starting to pay attention to such stories.

In New Jersey, a state pesticide task force reported in 1999 that up to five percent of the state's land area - about 240,000 acres - might be affected by arsenic and other toxic chemicals sprayed on orchards, vegetable fields, turf farms and golf courses between 1900 and the early 1970s.

Arsenical pesticides are a particular concern because arsenic and lead - the primary ingredients - are stable elements that persist in soil and groundwater for eternity. Arsenic can cause liver, lung, kidney, bladder and skin cancer when ingested, and lead has been shown to cause behavioral changes and learning disabilities.

Yet lead arsenate was the pesticide of choice for apple growers for the first half of the 20th century, before DDT came into use.

The most commonly used mixture was called Paris Green. It worked well against codling moth - until the insect developed a resistance. Growers increased application rates until whole orchards were coated white. Then, in 1946, they switched to organochlorine pesticides like DDT (dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane), aldrin and dieldrin.

A pesticide task force began meeting in Massachusetts this month, prompted in part by a proposed apartment complex in Marlborough on an old apple orchard that is highly contaminated with arsenic and DDT.

"We need to look at whether further laws or regulations are appropriate to protect the public from hazards of living on land that is poisoned with pesticides,'' said Massachusetts state Sen. Pam Resor, a Democrat.

But in Connecticut, state health and environmental officials say it is up to local land-use boards to make sure the subdivisions they approve are not built on tainted ground. There are set standards for the levels of pesticides that may be present in soils in residential areas, although owners of farmland have no regulatory obligation to test for these pesticides before subdividing their property.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has produced a short guide for local governments on how to address the issue.

"In terms of a formal program, we are not proceeding in that direction," said Elsie Patton, DEP assistant director of permitting, enforcement and remediation. "The local officials have input. Whatever it takes for them to feel comfortable."

A few towns, like Simsbury and East Lyme, are making developers test soil for pesticides and in some cases remove or dilute contaminated dirt. Others are not.

In Southington, where an old orchard is being turned into housing lots, town officials have elected not to raise the issue.

"We typically do not get into analyzing hazardous waste aspects as it applies to private property,'' Town Planner Robert Nerney said. "Nor would we be particularly well-equipped to do so."

How much risk?

What are the dangers of living on land that is contaminated with pesticides?

DDT is suspected of causing liver and pancreatic cancer in humans, but health officials say residents would have to eat a lot of contaminated soil over the course of a lifetime to increase their chances of getting sick. Children, who may ingest dirt while playing or sucking on toys that have been dropped on the ground, face a higher risk than adults.

"It is a theoretical risk, and it is prudent to minimize that risk,'' said Gary Ginsberg, a toxicologist with the state Department of Health.

Ginsberg said homebuyers should consider testing soil around homes in former agricultural areas, or at least look at site history to find out what types of pesticides have been used.

"It is always worth screening for,'' he said.

It may not be a good idea to grow vegetables on land that has very high levels of pesticide contamination. Plants do absorb pesticides like chlordane, dieldrin and DDE (a breakdown of DDT).

Research done by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Research Station in the mid-1990s found trace amounts of banned pesticides in locally grown crops, including lettuce, cucumbers, summer squash and spinach. These pesticides have not been used in the United States since 1972, but are still present in the soil.

"It's not on the surface of vegetables, but actually in the vegetable,'' said Mary Jane Incorvia Mattina, head of the experiment station's department of analytical chemistry. "In one sample, from an organic farm, we found chlordane in vegetables grown on land that had not had pesticides used in 15 years.''

In almost all cases, the vegetables did not exceed pesticide exposure limits set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the public should not be discouraged from eating fresh vegetables, Mattina said.

"I do not want to inflate this too much because the levels are extremely low,'' Mattina said. "But the development of agricultural land probably does warrant some kind of survey. It is the sum total of what we are exposed to that may affect the public health."



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