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Daily News Blog

11
May

Toxic Chemicals and Oil Byproducts Found In Treated Irrigation Water

(Beyond Pesticides, May 11, 2015) Oil giant Chevron has been helping farmers in Kern County, CA find a solution to raising crops during the ongoing drought — but it may cause long-term health effects. The county is using treated oil field wastewater from the corporation to irrigate crops. As of now, the government only requires limited testing of treated wastewater, checking for naturally occurring toxins rather than screening for chemicals used in current oil-extraction processes. Legislation was passed last year that  requires oil companies to identify for  the state the chemicals they use in the oil-extraction process, but the Central Valley water authority, which regulates the water recycling program, gave producers until June 15 to report their results. To pick up the slack in the meantime, the advocacy group Water Defense, founded by actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo, collected samples of the treated irrigation water. The group works to promote access to clean water by testing local supplies and documenting contamination, and their findings indicated extremely high levels of oil, acetone and methylene chloride, a potential carcinogen, in the treated irrigation water.

Beyond Pesticides has investigated treated wastewater from homes and residential areas. This research indicates that treated wastewater acts as a prominent food contaminant when used for irrigation. While wastewater recycling has many benefits, there are a host of issues that must be addressed before using wastewater for irrigation can be considered safe. Chief among them is contaminants of emerging concern. Contaminants of emerging concern are chemicals that typically have not been monitored in the environment, but have only recently been detected in waterways and municipal wastewater. Chemicals include are flame retardants, personal care products, pharmaceuticals, and pesticides. Although Beyond Pesticides’ research specifically looked at treated wastewater from homes and the specific types of contaminants that are found in this water, it highlights the fact that current technology is unable to remove all toxicants  from wastewater.

As for Kern County, the treated wastewater from Chevron Oil is so unclean that farmers can smell the oil while they irrigate their fields. Blake Sanden, an agriculture extension agent and irrigation water expert with UC Davis, told  the Los Angeles Times, “Everyone smells the petrochemicals in the irrigation water, but local farmers trust that organisms in the soil remove toxins or impurities in water.” While this may be possible in organic farming systems due to the fact that these systems follow a “feed-the-soil” approach which fosters microbial health, conventional agriculture relies on pesticides, which reduce species diversity within the soil, impacting microorganisms’ ability to break down toxic elements.

Although eating organic provides consumers with a healthier alternative to the problems associated with conventional agriculture, even the organic label does not fully  address the possible contamination that may result from using treated wastewater for irrigation. Organic agriculture uses the same water that conventional agriculture uses. In this USDA guide for organic producers, it addresses wastewaster very briefly, stating: “The USDA organic regulations have very little to say about irrigation and irrigation water quality. However, since it is the general intent of these regulations that crops and soils not be contaminated with prohibited substances, producers should take precautions to ensure that irrigation water is not loaded with agricultural pesticides or other polluting chemicals.” While this is a nice sentiment, the aforementioned “should” language doesn’t actually guarantee consumers who are eating organic that their food is grown with chemical or pesticide-free water. Organic law recognizes that we live in a polluted world,  however the National Organic Standards Board is now evaluating contaminated farm inputs, has published a work plan, and is seeking public input. See Beyond Pesticides’ comment here.

While the USDA organic label is something to support and protect, organic practices should always follow tough standards that do not compromise the health of people and the planet. The organic regulatory process provides numerous opportunities for the public to weigh in on what is allowable in organic production. Beyond Pesticides has already rebuked USDA for its failure to seek public comment on contaminants used in organic agriculture by filing a lawsuit against the government agency.   We also ask you to help defend organic standards against any other USDA changes or inconsistencies that will weaken public trust in the organic food label. If you are not satisfied with USDA’s lax regulations for treated waste water used for irrigation in organically-grown agriculture, speak up! You can contact Beyond Pesticides by calling 202-543-5450 or through email, at [email protected] for more information.

Source: Los Angeles Times

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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  • Archives

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    • Announcements (586)
    • Antibiotic Resistance (13)
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