PANUPS: Groundwater Contamination

                         P A N U P S
                   Pesticide Action Network 
                        North America
                       Updates Service

April 14, 1997

Widespread Groundwater Contamination from Legal Pesticide Use

A new study released by the North Carolina Pesticide Board 
shows widespread pesticide contamination in the state's 
groundwater. Over 27% of the wells sampled in pesticide use 
areas were contaminated by legal, routine pesticide use. The 
report documents contamination resulting from pesticides that 
were applied according to directions on the product labels. 

The report states that a total of 36 chemicals were found in 
the wells. Of those, 31 were pesticides or pesticide 
breakdown products. According to the Agricultural Resource 
Center (ARC), a North Carolina-based non-profit organization, 
many of the pesticides found cause cancer, birth defects, 
genetic damage or harm to the immune and endocrine systems.

The results of the final report may actually understate the 
extent of the problem in North Carolina since the most 
vulnerable sites were excluded from the study. The study was 
limited to identifying contamination from pesticides used in 
legal applications, and excluded sites used as pesticide 
mixing and loading areas and sites of known accidents, spills 
or container disposal.  

The state sampled three types of wells, including 55 existing 
monitoring wells. These wells, which ranged in depth from 14 
to 726 feet, have no direct connection to pesticide use and 
represent the major aquifers in North Carolina for municipal 
and domestic water supplies. Thirteen percent of the wells 
tested were contaminated.

To sample groundwater in pesticide use areas, the state 
installed 100 monitoring wells within 300 feet of 
agricultural fields, highway right-of-ways, mosquito 
abatement areas, golf courses and other non-crop land use 
areas in cooperation with landowners. Most were agricultural 
sites in the Coastal Plain. Of the 97 that were successfully 
sampled, approximately 26% were contaminated.

Forty-six domestic drinking water wells near the contaminated 
wells in pesticide use areas were sampled, and slightly over 
17% were found to contain pesticides. As a result, some well 
owners have been advised not to drink from their wells.

"There is no economically viable method to clean up 
widespread contamination," said ARC's Research Director Erick 
Umstead. "Pesticide contamination poses a serious, 
unreasonable public health threat to current and future 
groundwater users. Federal registration of pesticide products 
is granted on the condition that the products do not cause 
unreasonable adverse effects. The use of these products must 
be reconsidered in light of these findings," Umstead added.

The study was conducted for the North Carolina (NC) Pesticide 
Board by an interagency work group of the NC Department of 
Agriculture (NCDA) and the NC Department of Environment, 
Health and Natural Resources (NC-DEHNR) and cost 
approximately $1.1 million. The Pesticide Board is a seven 
member body appointed by the Governor with primary regulatory 
and enforcement authority over pesticides in the state.

Last August, the Pesticide Board adopted a final study report 
that had understated the contamination by as much as 35%. In 
November, 1996, ARC successfully petitioned the Board to 
rewrite its report to more accurately reflect the findings. 
Several independent scientists submitted letters or testified 
in support of ARC's position.

The next task for the North Carolina Pesticide Board is to 
develop specific management plans to protect groundwater from 
pesticides identified as problem leachers by the U.S. 
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The study found three 
of these problem pesticides -- atrazine, alachlor and 
simazine -- in the groundwater. 

According to ARC, both state and federal pesticide regulatory 
programs have failed to protect groundwater resources. The 
organization pointed out that pesticide supporters have long 
argued that most contamination results from spills, accidents 
and misuse. This study eliminated those sources, yet still 
found high levels of contamination. ARC called for 
accelerating the search for alternatives to pesticides and 
the conversion to sustainable and organic agricultural 

For a copy of the report contact John Smith, Pesticide 
Administrator, NCDA, P.O. Box 27647, Raleigh, NC 27611; 
telephone: (919) 733-3556.

Source/contact: Agricultural Resource Center, 115 West Main 
Street, Carrboro, NC 27510; phone (919) 967-1886; email 

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