(Beyond Pesticides, September 24, 2008) Pesticides used on peach orchards over 50 years ago have been detected in the groundwater of three North Carolina counties. Tests have detected 117 tainted wells in Montgomery, Richmond and Moore counties in the past year, 77 of those at unsafe levels.
Public Health officials are scrambling to deliver safe water to those whose wells have been contaminated. However, the number of contaminated wells is forecasted to increase as more residents opt to have their groundwater tested, as the news of tainted wells continues to spread. Many residents are also wondering how they have been impacted as a result of their exposure to the tainted water. Local officials are also worried over how far and wide the contamination has spread. Contamination levels as high as 55 times the federal safe drinking-water standard have been detected. Households where concentrations are highest have been told not to drink or cook with their well water, and limit showers to 10 minutes.
Peach orchards now grow on a modest 1,350 acres in North Carolina, but production in 1941 was 12 times greater. The chemicals now detected in groundwater were first used in the 1950s and include ethylene dibromide (EDB) and 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane (DBCP). Both chemicals were fumigants used to control soil insects like nematodes. They are both listed as probable human carcinogens and reproductive and developmental toxicants. However, they are no longer registered for use in the U.S. due to their toxic effects on humans. Recently, a North Carolina farm worker appeared before the state Pesticide Board, saying she and her husband were repeatedly exposed to pesticides. She later gave birth to a son with no arms or legs.
The quantity of pesticides once used on orchards is staggering. For example, pesticides applied in Haywood County, in the North Carolina Mountains, turned a former apple orchard into a federal Superfund hazardous waste site in 2001. “I would like to know who was liable for putting that stuff out here years ago and not telling anybody, because they knew it was toxic,” said Franklin Harper, 62, resident of Richmond County. Like most of his neighbors, Mr. Harper learned his well was contaminated only a few weeks ago after reading a local newspaper story about the toxic chemicals.
DBCP and EDB have also been detected in public and private wells in South Carolina. Local authorities there have not pinpointed specific sources, but say they likely are related to former farmland, including peach orchards. Two wells servicing a 19,000-customer water system in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, have been taken off line because of the contamination. Sixteen of 75 private wells tested are also tainted. Some counties now recommend testing wells for pesticides if they are on former farmland. Private well owners, however, have to test their wells on their own.
For now, the solution to getting safe drinking water to well owners is five-gallon jugs of water that North Carolina authorities deliver each week to affected homes. Officials in Montgomery and Richmond counties, which have the highest concentration of tainted wells, are looking for grants to extend water lines to affected areas.
A recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report found that certain pesticides can persist for years in groundwater depending on the chemical structure of the compounds and the environmental conditions. According to a Beyond Pesticides report, Threatened Waters: Turning the Tide on Pesticide Contamination , over 50% of the U.S. population draws its drinking water supply from groundwater. Once groundwater has been contaminated, it takes many years or even decades to recover.