by Stephen Wagner
Though retired, Penn State Extension Specialist Tom McCarty is still the go-to guy for solving water problems involving pesticides and other potentially dangerous potables. A case in point, chronicled by a Penn State magazine, showed how McCarty successfully solved the plight of a woman who was being plagued by an unknown malady. This Harrisburg, PA, woman had been experiencing nausea, diarrhea and skin rashes for three years. No one could determine what was causing her ailment; best guesses indicated some sort of possible allergy. Consequently the remedy, in light of that non-professional diagnosis, was to try to purge the house of possible toxins by getting rid of plastics, clothing made with synthetic fabrics, chemical cleaners, and furniture with formaldehyde. Air filters had even been added to the house but none of those steps were of any avail. It took the victim’s dogs getting sick to make her wonder about the property’s water supply. As an alternative, she started using bottled water, a measure that seemed to afford a measure of relief.
When the water was tested, the lab told her that the water had an e-coli count 16 times greater than what the Environmental Protection Agency considered unsafe. Furthermore, a total coliform count registered more than 200 times EPA standards. From there, Dottie Johns, the victim, was at odds about where to turn. An online web search directed her to the PSU extension website about drinking water, and Johns phoned Tom McCarty. McCarty met with her and explained exactly what the test results were saying. As a result, he recommended installation of a monitoring device that employs ultra-violet radiation to kill bacteria at the primary water line before it travels to the rest of the dwelling’s plumbing. The plumbing was also flushed with a bottle of chlorine to destroy any lingering bacteria.
McCarty was the kick-off speaker at a pesticide forum held in Lancaster at the beginning of March. He discussed water quality and pesticide issues. The sessions, which ran all day, were primarily for those interested in pesticide certifications and the subjects under discussion offered credits. Related topics included Transporting Chemicals, and Spill Response and Clean Up.
“We get good at measuring stuff,” said McCarty. “We used to pride ourselves with being able to measure parts per million. Then, parts per billion. Now, parts per trillion. If you keep going on down, you are liable to detect things that you weren’t able to detect earlier. The fact that we can find stuff isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
Then McCarty got into the nitty-gritty of the topic by asking for a show of hands by anyone who had ever spilled anything. “Let’s make it more interesting,” he said. “How far from your well is it safe to spill a jug of herbicide?” An all-inclusive answer can be found at Penn State’s Ag Communications and Marketing offices. Four years ago, Winand Hock, professor emeritus of Plant Pathology, and Eric Lorenz, senior extension associate, Pesticide Education Program, authored a paper titled ‘How to Handle Chemical Spills.’ It advocates that, “The suggested guidelines in the event of a hazardous chemical spill are included under the ‘Three C’ program: Control the spill, Contain the spill, and Clean up the spill.”
“Act quickly,” the communiqué says when talking about Spill Control. “The sooner the spill is controlled the less damage it can cause. Immediate steps should be taken to control the flow of the material being spilled, regardless of the source. If a one-gallon can on a storage shelf has rusted through and is leaking, a sprayer has tipped over, or a hazardous chemical is leaking from a damaged tank truck, do everything possible to stop the leak or spill at once…However, stopping larger leaks or spills may not be so simple. If the spill is large or dangerous, have someone get help. Do not leave the site unattended.
“…At the same time the leak is being controlled,” the advisory continues, “contain the spilled material in as small an area as possible and keep it from spreading. In some situations, a shovel or power equipment may be needed to construct a dam. Liquid spills can be further contained by spreading absorbent materials such as fine sand, vermiculite, clay, or pet litter over the entire spill. However, a word of caution is needed here. Avoid using sawdust or sweeping compounds if the material is a strong oxidizer (check the label or MSDS) because such a combination presents a possible fire hazard.
“…The only effective way to decontaminate soil saturated with a hazardous chemical is to remove the top 2 to 3 inches of soil. This contaminated soil must be disposed of at a proper disposal site. The decontaminated area should be covered with at least 2 inches of lime and then topped with fresh topsoil.”
McCarty then asked a hypothetical question: “Isn’t contamination merely theoretical? We don’t really have to worry about it?” By that he means that if you believe certain theories, such as soil being low porosity and unable to contain outlandish chemical components, spills are likely to be minimal dangers. “Small pores,” in other words, “don’t necessarily have a lot of materials in them, and it holds them well, and it has all summer to decay. So if you have something with a reasonable half life, pesticides won’t be transported through or into ground water. You could say pesticides never move through the soil. We didn’t see that,” said McCarty. “We did see that there were some conditions where they may move in small quantities.” Returning to his original question about a herbicide spill near a well, McCarty then asked “Hasn’t anybody ever tested the groundwater to find if herbicides are present?”
Pesticides as a potential danger
by Stephen Wagner