April 14, 1997
Widespread Groundwater Contamination from Legal Pesticide Use
A new study released by the North Carolina Pesticide Board
shows widespread pesticide contamination in the state's
groundwater. Over 27% of the wells sampled in pesticide use
areas were contaminated by legal, routine pesticide use. The
report documents contamination resulting from pesticides that
were applied according to directions on the product labels.
The report states that a total of 36 chemicals were found in
the wells. Of those, 31 were pesticides or pesticide
breakdown products. According to the Agricultural Resource
Center (ARC), a North Carolina-based non-profit organization,
many of the pesticides found cause cancer, birth defects,
genetic damage or harm to the immune and endocrine systems.
The results of the final report may actually understate the
extent of the problem in North Carolina since the most
vulnerable sites were excluded from the study. The study was
limited to identifying contamination from pesticides used in
legal applications, and excluded sites used as pesticide
mixing and loading areas and sites of known accidents, spills
or container disposal.
The state sampled three types of wells, including 55 existing
monitoring wells. These wells, which ranged in depth from 14
to 726 feet, have no direct connection to pesticide use and
represent the major aquifers in North Carolina for municipal
and domestic water supplies. Thirteen percent of the wells
tested were contaminated.
To sample groundwater in pesticide use areas, the state
installed 100 monitoring wells within 300 feet of
agricultural fields, highway right-of-ways, mosquito
abatement areas, golf courses and other non-crop land use
areas in cooperation with landowners. Most were agricultural
sites in the Coastal Plain. Of the 97 that were successfully
sampled, approximately 26% were contaminated.
Forty-six domestic drinking water wells near the contaminated
wells in pesticide use areas were sampled, and slightly over
17% were found to contain pesticides. As a result, some well
owners have been advised not to drink from their wells.
"There is no economically viable method to clean up
widespread contamination," said ARC's Research Director Erick
Umstead. "Pesticide contamination poses a serious,
unreasonable public health threat to current and future
groundwater users. Federal registration of pesticide products
is granted on the condition that the products do not cause
unreasonable adverse effects. The use of these products must
be reconsidered in light of these findings," Umstead added.
The study was conducted for the North Carolina (NC) Pesticide
Board by an interagency work group of the NC Department of
Agriculture (NCDA) and the NC Department of Environment,
Health and Natural Resources (NC-DEHNR) and cost
approximately $1.1 million. The Pesticide Board is a seven
member body appointed by the Governor with primary regulatory
and enforcement authority over pesticides in the state.
Last August, the Pesticide Board adopted a final study report
that had understated the contamination by as much as 35%. In
November, 1996, ARC successfully petitioned the Board to
rewrite its report to more accurately reflect the findings.
Several independent scientists submitted letters or testified
in support of ARC's position.
The next task for the North Carolina Pesticide Board is to
develop specific management plans to protect groundwater from
pesticides identified as problem leachers by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The study found three
of these problem pesticides -- atrazine, alachlor and
simazine -- in the groundwater.
According to ARC, both state and federal pesticide regulatory
programs have failed to protect groundwater resources. The
organization pointed out that pesticide supporters have long
argued that most contamination results from spills, accidents
and misuse. This study eliminated those sources, yet still
found high levels of contamination. ARC called for
accelerating the search for alternatives to pesticides and
the conversion to sustainable and organic agricultural
For a copy of the report contact John Smith, Pesticide
Administrator, NCDA, P.O. Box 27647, Raleigh, NC 27611;
telephone: (919) 733-3556.
Source/contact: Agricultural Resource Center, 115 West Main
Street, Carrboro, NC 27510; phone (919) 967-1886; email
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