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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Thirst for Safe Water Part #3: Pesticides in Drinking Water

Air Date: Week of

This year, U.S. farmers will apply one billion pounds of pesticides to their crops, much of which will runoff the soil into rivers and streams that provide drinking water. Costly big city treatment plants often filter the chemicals out before they reach homes, but the plants in many smaller towns lack that capability. So every year, millions of Americans living in rural communities consume potentially dangerous levels of pesticides in their drinking water. Brenda Tremblay prepared this report, the third in our series "The Thirst for Safe Water."


CURWOOD: This year in the United States, farmers will apply one billion pounds of pesticides to their crops, and a lot of those pesticides will run off the soil and into rivers and streams that provide drinking water. Expensive big-city treatment plants often filter the chemicals out before they reach homes, but the plants in many smaller towns lack that capability. So, every year, millions of Americans living in rural communities consume potentially dangerous levels of pesticides along with their drinking water. Brenda Tremblay prepared this report, the third in our series The Thirst for Safe Water.

(Fiddle music up and under)

TREMBLAY: At the Walters-Boone County Historical Museum near the Missouri River in central Missouri, it's meeting night for the Old Time Fiddle Club. About thirty people sit in a circle, swaying back and forth to the music as they play. After a few waltzes, a short, wiry man named Ivan Crane balances his guitar against the back of his chair and ambles out into the hallway toward the drinking fountain. He takes a long drink and then pauses in the entryway to watch the rain fall onto the parking lot outside.

CRANE: I used to work on the river when I was, oh, about sixteen, seventeen years old, and we used to drink water out of that river. Just go out and dip with a wooden keg and stir down with alum and put ice in it, and we'd drink it.

(Music continues)

TREMBLAY: Mr. Crane says he probably wouldn't drink straight out of the river now because it's too polluted. But he still does drink river water. It's just that, like his neighbors, he depends on the local water treatment plant to remove the pollutants before the water gets to his tap. But it turns out that some pollutants may be getting through.

(Car door slams, footsteps in gravel, cat meows)

A few miles to the north, farmer Keith Schnare steps out of his pick-up truck and glares up at the gray and rainy sky.

SCHNARE:What you plan and what happens, Mother Nature sometimes don't follow the book. (Laughs)

TREMBLAY: It's officially spring, but it's still too cold for Mr. Schnare to sow his spring crops. When he can get to work, he'll plant corn, and then he'll apply a chemical called atrazine to his fields to prevent weeds from competing with the corn.

SCHNARE: So this is our spray rig that we use, and we just bought this rig this winter and it's a Patriot sprayer. Uh, the chemicals we don't pick up until needed. It's all ordered, it's all spoken for.

TREMBLAY: Mr. Schnare will use this sprayer to apply more than four thousand pounds of atrazine to his corn crop this year. Across the country, farmers apply more than forty-five million pounds of the chemical every spring. Atrazine is the most commonly-used herbicide in the U.S., and at certain levels it's known to cause a host of human health problems, including damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and even cancer.

(Creek sounds)

After Mr. Schnare sprays his fields, the spring rains will wash over his farm and rinse the atrazine and other agricultural chemicals into dozens of creeks and streams. Eventually, those streams flow into the Missouri River. On the bank of a creek along the way, researcher Bob Lersch is collecting water samples in a small wooden shed. (Clinking bottles)

LERSCH: There's eight bottles in this rack, and we would then bring each of those back into our laboratory and filter those and then we have a way of extracting the herbicides out of the water and analyzing those.

TREMBLAY: Dr. Lersch is a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After conducting the same tests over and over again every year, he knows what to expect this spring.

LERSCH: After the farmers apply their chemicals in April and May, we'll see a huge spike in concentration at the watershed scale. Essentially we're looking at probably somewhere around a thousand-fold increase, and that will last for probably most of the months of May and June, as you get pulses of rain, the water washes off the field and comes into the creek.

(Creek flows)

TREMBLAY: Scientists call this annual event the "spring flush." It happens throughout the United States, everywhere pesticides are applied to fields, to lawns, and to roadsides. High concentrations of many chemicals flow into the streams and rivers which provide drinking water sources for places like Boone County. Most communities treat their water for organisms which cause disease, but many small agricultural towns can't afford to treat water for pesticides. So these chemicals are getting into people's tap water. A recent study by the Environmental Working Group found that in the Midwest alone, nearly three million people drank water that exceeded federal standards for atrazine and other chemicals for weeks at a time after spring planting.

MALEY: We do have significant concentrations of atrazine in many of our lakes and rivers in the springtime.

TREMBLAY: Randall Maley is an environmental specialist with the Missouri State Department of Health. He says that atrazine will start to show up in the Missouri river in April and it'll peak in June. Then the chemical will concentrate in reservoirs. But he's not worried about the health effects of spring flush.

MALEY: On an annual average most of those do not exceed the public drinking water standard but for that short period time you do have concentrations significantly higher than that.

TREMBLAY: Under federal standards, levels of atrazine and other pesticides in drinking water are not considered dangerous unless they exceed a certain average over the course of a year. Violations of annual standards are relatively uncommon, and short-term spikes aren't considered a big deal. But the Environmental Working Group thinks there could be a problem, both with short-term spikes and long-term exposure.

COHEN: In some ways we're doing a giant controlled experiment on a large part of the population in Midwestern America to see how sick they'll get if we have them drinking for years at a time tap water that's contaminated with up to ten different cancer-causing chemicals.

TREMBLAY: Brian Cohen is an analyst with the Environmental Working Group. His group and other researchers are primarily worried about cancer, but they are also concerned about more subtle effects, especially in groups which are more sensitive to chemicals, such as children and developing embryos. Dr. Jim Haynes is a biologist at the State University of New York in Brockport.

HAYNES: We're talking about certain kinds of chemicals that have the potential to alter some function of the endocrine system which can effect reproduction, behavior, and the immune system. The kinds of effects we're talking about seem to be taking place at concentrations of chemicals that are ten to a thousand times lower than the concentrations that cause cancer.

TREMBLAY: Researchers like Dr. Haynes and Brian Cohen of the Environmental Working Group say federal standards just aren't strict enough to guard against these kinds of threats.

COHEN: The problem with EPA standards is that they don't take into account things like the fact that children drink more water than adults. They don't take into account the fact that an individual may be exposed to many different pesticides in a single glass of tap water, and they don't even take into account the fact that individuals may not only be exposed to atrazine in their tap water but through other avenues as well.

TREMBLAY: In fact, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington share these concerns. They've started to look at this issue of the total load of chemicals, and depending on what they find, could change their standards. In one of their first significant findings, researchers working for the EPA recently reported that chemicals from one common group of pesticides can have an effect when found together which is greater than the effect of the same levels of each chemical alone. In other words, the researchers say, if you have a glass of drinking water with four of these pesticides in it, they may have a combined effect that's the same as one of them at a higher concentration. This may not be true for all pesticides, but researchers are studying them one group at a time. While it searches for answers, the EPA is also handing out money to small water treatment facilities to help them deal with the spring flush of agricultural chemicals. Gail Hutton directs the water, wetlands, and pesticides division of the EPA for Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska.

HUTTON: We're finding a lot of interest in all four of our states from communities to use that money. There is a tremendous need out there.

TREMBLAY: But in the long run, Mr. Hutton says, the answer isn't just to try to remove pesticides from the water, but to keep them out of the water in the first place.

HUTTON: That's where as a society we need to be is focusing on long-term prevention as opposed to automatically assuming that we will have the technology to treat.

TREMBLAY: The philosophy of prevention is starting to gain popularity in small farming communities.

(Sounds of a spillway)

Near the Kansas-Missouri border, Hillsdale Lake sparkles under a blue, cloudless sky. The lake provides drinking water for people in the town of Spring Hill, Kansas.

MCCRAE: Would you like a glass of water?

(Ice clinks, faucet runs, sips)

TREMBLAY: In the kitchen of her split-level house, Janet McCrae draws a glass of water from the tap, hands it over, and watches closely while I take a sip. She chairs a citizen's group that's trying to control pollutants in Hillsdale Lake.

MCCRAE: We have been tracking and looking at the atrazine and phosphorus levels. Right now we have a study that's underway to see if those are really the things that we should be taking a look at.

TREMBLAY: Janet McCrae's organization hands out brochures at local fairs and schools. Volunteers draw water samples from the lake for regular testing. They also channel federal money to farmers to help cut their use of chemicals. Their efforts are starting to pay off. Over the past five years, the atrazine level in the lake has dropped thirty percent. Ms. McCrae says when farmers learn there's a problem, many are eager to try to make changes.

MCCRAE: It's part of the Midwest atmosphere of you take care of what you create. You take care of your heritage. And they also knew that they needed to take care of the water quality for their children.

TREMBLAY: But not all farmers are easily persuaded.

FARMER # 1(Speaking into a walkie-talkie): Yeah, there's one of these heifer calves is on the wrong side of the fence there behind the pond dam, he's trying to get through, somebody go help him.

FARMER # 2: Yep.

TREMBLAY: Back in Boone County,Missouri, farmer Keith Schnare says people just don't understand what farmers have to do to be successful. The atrazine that he relies on to kill weeds is under review by the EPA. There's talk in Washington of banning it altogether. Mr. Schnare's jaw clenches when I ask him what he would do if he were presented with evidence that the chemicals washing off his fields could be causing serious health problems.

SCHNARE: Farmers are, if it's factual and fair and true scientific data (clears throat) I think farmers are willing to accept that, but when it's just not real factual and it's scare data or political data, that's what we have a lotta problem with.

TREMBLAY: Despite his skepticism, Mr. Schnare has already voluntarily reduced the amount of pesticides he applies. He says he used to pour "gobs" of atrazine on his corn crop. This year he'll spray fifty percent less.

SCHNARE: Now your chemicals are real low volume and you use ounces where we used to use quarts and half gallons of the product per acre, we're down to ounces per acre.

(Fiddle sounds)

TREMBLAY: Here in Boone County, Missouri, many people aren't concerned about agricultural chemicals in their tap water. They're more worried about over-development and crime. But because they live in an agricultural area, they may be more vulnerable to unsafe water. And whether they worry or not, officials are worried. Researchers are looking for answers and the EPA will make its first announcements about its review of the most commonly-used herbicides next year. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay in Boone County, Missouri.



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