April 22, 2011 Features & Images » Feature Story

Farming's toxic legacy 

Washington State soil tests positive for banned chemicals

High Country News

YAKIMA, WASHINGTON - Nothing about the quiet summer morning suggests a reason to worry.

Two-year-old Kian plays happily in the dirt of the empty lot where his family's new house will eventually stand. Nearby, his mother Tara Compton points out interesting "buggies," and when he toddles down the steep hillside, she holds his hand. Dust rises from the soil as though from a phantom stampede, and dirt covers the little boy's hands and face.

"This is where I plan to grow our garden," says Compton, pointing to a wide plot of earth near a peach tree that yields delicious fruit. She's pregnant, but with her tall, strong build, it hardly shows. "It's important to me to grow a lot of our own vegetables because it's so hard to know what's in the food you buy at the store."

Compton, a 38-year-old intensive care nurse, is a conscientious mother. She buys organic produce, filters her water and uses lotions and sunscreens that are paraben-free. Compton and her husband, Ron, who's studying to become a teacher, chose Yakima out of a host of Western cities largely because of the nearby hiking and camping opportunities. Yet despite the natural beauty and the good, clean living, their new home hides a potential threat to her children - one that Compton is hard-pressed to control.

Some 30 years ago, this upper-middle-class neighborhood, with its two-story brick houses and generous views of Mount Adams, was all orchards and farmland. In this way, Yakima resembles many communities. Over the past 28 years, more than 5.5 million acres (22,300 square kilometres) of former farmland in the West have been plowed under and transformed into subdivisions, schools and parks. But even though the apple trees and cotton fields are long gone, they can leave a hidden toxic legacy.

Throughout much of the 20th century, farmers in Yakima and across the country blanketed crops with now-banned pesticides, including lead arsenate and a suite of long-lasting, synthetic organic compounds laced with chlorine, such as DDT, dieldrin, toxaphene and chlordane. Today, decades after they were sprayed, these compounds and their breakdown products often persist in the soil.

That doesn't necessarily mean they're harming people; in many places, the levels are likely negligible. There are no immediate health effects associated with exposure to these chemicals in the soil. And existing research indicates that the known health risks of living on former agricultural lands are relatively low - especially where the soil has been capped with a grassy lawn. Still, children who are exposed regularly over a long time period to contaminated dirt through direct contact - perhaps by playing in it or gardening or eating vegetables grown in it - may develop cancer or other health problems decades later, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

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