The 1982 movie Poltergeist told the tale of a family that was haunted by ghosts because their house had been built on an ancient burial ground. These days, other burial grounds are extracting some revenge. But the dangers are not nearly as obvious.
The scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives is not on many food bloggers’ reading lists. I keep up with it for work, and while looking for an article (about how ultrafine particles can pass through cell membranes and cause health problems) I came across something food related. The Apple Bites Back: Claiming Old Orchards for Residential Development, by Ernie Hood (PDF version) is an article about how previously used pesticides linger in our environment, and the potential implications for human health. Mr. Hood begins with this:
As the U.S. population continues to grow, increasing demand for housing and related community resources means more land is being converted from agricultural uses to residential applications. According to the revised 1997 National Resources Inventory conducted by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, more than 6 million acres of American farmland were converted to developed uses between 1992 and 1997. That is an annual conversion rate of roughly 1.2 million acres per year—a 51% increase over the average annual rate reported for the preceding decade.
Naturally, many of these areas were routinely treated with pesticides and other chemicals during their agricultural lifetimes. Although this legacy has been problematic in a wide variety of land conversion scenarios, one in particular seems to have attracted the attention and concern of environmental officials and property buyers in several states across the country: the residential development of historic orchard properties. In state after state, these old orchards (which most often produced apples, but also peaches, cherries, pears, and other tree crops) are metamorphosing into highly desirable subdivisions—desirable, that is, until it emerges that the soil beneath the feet of the proud new residents may be contaminated with lead and arsenic. These toxic by-products are left from the days before DDT and before organophosphates, when arsenical pesticides, particularly lead arsenate (LA), were the treatment of choice to prevent the ravages of insect damage.
Lead and arsenic. That can’t be good. But surely they have washed away by now, right? Not really:
LA and the other arsenical pesticides were designed to be persistent, and it is that persistence that is causing environmental contamination problems decades after their use ended. “These chemicals have just tremendously long half-lives in the ground,” says North Carolina state toxicologist Ken Rudo. “They bind very tightly to the soil.”
Once LA reached the soil through overspray, spillage, rainfall wash-off, or simply fallen fruit and leaves, the lead arsenate underwent hydrolysis, separating into lead and arsenic bound to organic particles in the soil. The lead, being poorly soluble, was immobilized, typically within the top 12 to 18 inches of topsoil. The fate of the arsenic was similar, but a bit more complicated. “Arsenic, as arsenate, even though somewhat sparingly soluble, is soluble, and it will move in water,” says Washington State University soil scientist Frank Peryea. “I’ve seen some sites where almost all of the arsenic is still in the topsoil, in the tillage zone, and I’ve seen sites where I’ve measured arsenic movement as deep as a meter or so.”
But even though the lead and arsenic are highly toxic, the danger to human health is not clear, and “hot spots” of sickness are not appearing (yet):
The potential danger posed to human health by lead and arsenic contamination in historic orchards is a complex issue, fraught with scientific uncertainties and competing interests. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen. Exposure to lead, especially prenatally and in childhood, can lead to neurological damage. There is no doubt that excessive exposure to either substance can adversely impact health, but in this case any risks are almost exclusively long-term—virtually no instances of acute adverse health effects have been documented in people living on historic orchard properties.
The risks involved may be modest and long-term in most cases, but low risk is not the same as no risk, and regulatory agencies across the country are finding themselves in a thorny situation as more and more contaminated historic orchard properties are developed. They are caught between their duty to protect public health and the environment, and the fact that the risks presented by most of these properties pale in comparison to those associated with other, more acute contamination sites, such as lands near smelters or toxic waste dumps. Naturally, budgets are limited, and priorities must be set. Yet the orchard situation cannot be ignored, and several states have been wrestling with how to deal with this issue for several years.
The sheer scope of the phenomenon adds another layer to the challenge of how to most effectively deal with it. “The magnitude of the problem is just staggering,” says Peryea. Millions of acres across the nation are involved. In the state of Washington alone, Peryea says, some 188,000 acres are affected. In Wisconsin, 50,000 acres may be affected, and in New Jersey, up to 5% of the state’s acreage is estimated to be impacted by the historical use of arsenical pesticides. Both New Jersey and Washington have had multistakeholder task forces examine the problem and issue recommendations and guidelines.
The author summarizes the situation thusly:
Despite the large scale scope of the problem, it appears that living on a historic orchard property contaminated by lead and arsenic does not constitute an immediate threat to human health. So it is still an open question whether it’s really necessary to spend huge amounts of money, often from tax dollars, to ameliorate these sites.
Peryea thinks that what is needed is a solid epidemiologic study to document whether there really is a problem with people living on these arsenical pesticide–contaminated soils. “If that sort of study was done,” he says, “and it was to show that there’s no problem, or that the problem is controllable by setting up some sort of engineering controls or behavioral controls, like they do with urban lead nowadays, that would probably take care of a lot of the problem. The response—rather than trying to force a cleanup that would probably be wildly impractical, very expensive, and potentially ruin property values—would be that people would change their behavior a bit and end up minimizing the risk.”
In the last sentence above, I interpret “people” to mean the residents of these former orchards, and that “change their behavior” refers to things like wearing gloves in the garden, rinsing produce grown in the contaminated soil. But I think that behavior changes need to be taken by more than just the residents of these areas: farmers should cut down on use of long-lived pesticides, consumers should increase purchases of organic produce. Because even if an agricultural field or orchard is never converted to a residential area, We all live downstream.
I have quoted a small part of the article, so if you are interested in such topic, go read the whole thing.