Pesticides pose greater threat to u.s. drinking water supplies than factories and toxic dumps

October 23, 2013


Rachel’s News #1, December 1, 1986

Environmental experts say the contamination of underground water supplies by runoff from farm chemicals is now happening across broad areas of the nation’s breadbasket and is more threatening to drinking water supplies than other conventional environmental problems such as factory discharges or toxic waste dumps. Every year since 1980 the Iowa Geological Survey has found trace amounts of agricultural chemicals in the underground water supplies that serve hundreds of thousands of people. The survey found that 53% of the shallow wells surveyed in Iowa contained pesticide residues. In Kansas, 28% of the farm wells sampled this year contained high levels of nitrates, a byproduct of nitrogen fertilizers. 50 communities in Iowa have nitrate levels in their drinking water that exceed the federal standards. Recent studies have shown that people living in rural parts of Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois have higher than normal risks of developing leukemia, lymphoma and other cancers. S
ome of the pesticides found in the water in the Middle West are known to cause cancer or are suspected of it. A recent study said about 785,000 (27%) of residents of Iowa drink water containing traces of one or more pesticides. The pesticides most commonly found in Iowa’s groundwater are the weed-killers alachlor, atrazine and cyanazine. Alachlor, banned in Canada, has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Manufactured by the Monsanto Company, alachlor is marketed under the brand name Lasso. In Aug. 1986, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad proposed spending $27 million over 3 years to reduce the amount of fertilizers and pesticides farmers put into the soil. Since 1960, the use of nitrogen fertilizers have increased more than 5 times in Iowa. In the same time period, in some areas the concentrations of nitrates in the groundwater have tripled. Without exposure to air and sunlight, pesticides that would have normally broken down in two months may last 6 months to a
year underground. According to health officials, the shallow wells used by most Midwestern farm families are more prone to contamination because the people drink the water straight whereas in industrial areas the water is treated. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, even the best treatment available is not significantly reducing the concentration of pesticides in water and the only way to solve the problem is to change human attitudes and behavior. –Peter Montague


States and communities are stepping up their recycling efforts despite high costs because dumping is even more expensive and landfill space is running out. Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit community organization in Boulder, Colorado has been losing about $15,000 a month on its collection and recycling of paper, aluminum and glass but the voluntary program is considered the third most successful in the country in terms of per capita volume (behind Islip, Long Island and Montgomery County, Maryland, both of which have mandatory recycling programs). The program recovers about 80% of its costs by selling the paper to a paper mill in Oregon, the aluminum to Reynolds Aluminum and the glass to Adolph Coors Company.

According to a CA resource management firm, recycling is the cheapest way to handle trash because the average cost of weekly curbside trash collection and recycling is $20 or $30 a ton but it costs $40 to $60 a ton to haul trash to a landfill and $70 to $120 a ton to burn it.

Some states, including Rhode Island, Michigan, Illinois and Massachusetts have enacted or are considering legislation mandating recycling of trash. In Oregon cans and bottles of beer and soda have a mandated deposit and communities with 4,000 or more people must recycle their trash. At least 50 cities in CA have some form of voluntary curbside programs.

Markets for recycled materials are growing slowly. Today about 20 million tons of paper (27% of discarded paper) are recycled annually nationwide as compared to 12.5 million tons (22%) in 1970. Today about 650,000 tons of aluminum (53% of used cans) are recycled as compared to 137,000 tons (27%) a decade ago; 1.25 million tons (just under 10% of the total) of glass is recycled now as compared to 368,000 tons (3%) a decade ago.

New technology is helping the growth of recycling. A new glass recycling machine can handle “dirty” glass–colored as well as clear glass, so that recyclers don’t have to separate glass anymore. Many processing centers are using a trommel, a device that spins around, dropping material through holes in a preliminary sorting process. Densifiers are new machines that can compact aluminum and paper more efficiently than previous compactors. A wider range of materials can now be recycled due to technological advances. A new process shreds tires into small chips to be burned much like coal. A West German technology allows burning without shredding.

Working against the economics of recycling are the glut of materials such as paper, storage of recyclables and a market to absorb the recycled materials. Today, waste paper sells for an average of $35 a ton, as compared to $70 to $80 a ton in 1978. Overseas markets may take some of the recycled paper. In 1985 more than 700,000 tons of waste paper were shipped to South Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Japan and Canada. Some states, including NJ, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland and Oregon are emphasizing state policy to buy recycled materials whenever possible. The National Association of Recycling Industries opposes mandatory recycling, however, unless there is clearly a market for the materials.

Descriptor terms: water; drinking water; groundwater; ia; il; ks; ne; fertilizer; nitrate; pesticides; alachlor; atrazine; recycling; landfilling; msw; national association of recycling industries;

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: