Keeping kids safe from pesticides

Lead and arsenic used decades ago in pesticides are still lingering in the topsoil of Pacific Northwest apple country. This poses a health risk for children who come in close contact with dirt in the backyards and playgrounds developed from former orchards. Our environmental public media partner, EarthFix, gives us a look at what’s being done to keep kids safe from contaminated soil.

TRANSCRIPT

Lead and arsenic used decades ago in pesticides are still lingering in the topsoil of Pacific Northwest apple country.

This poses a health risk for children who come in close contact with dirt in the backyards and playgrounds developed from former orchards.

Our environmental news partner Earth-Fix gives us a look at what's being done to keep kids safe from contaminated soil.

One thing Jennifer Garcia loves about her home in Yakima, Washington, is having a yard where her children can play.

We set up a little garden for the kids out here for fun.

We have our pumpkins and tomatoes.

Garcia didn't know that the soil in her yard is contaminated.

I wondered if there was any type of old contamination but had hoped that, or you would just assume, that it would be healthy, that they would take care of that.

So, no eating dirt back here, guys.

Okay?

Her home sits on land that used to be an apple orchard.

Recent tests show high levels of arsenic in the topsoil.

The poisonous substance is left over from pesticides sprayed here decades ago.

It's the legacy from a decades-long battle between apple growers and an insatiable pest -- the codling moth.

Codling moth caterpillars infest apples, turning them into mush.

Damaged apples were thrown out by the thousands.

But in 1905, orchardists found an answer -- a pesticide called 'lead arsenate.'

Frank Peryea has studied lead arsenate at Washington State University for decades.

By the end of the 1930s, there was much lead arsenate being used that there's an argument that it wasn't really poisoning the insects.

It was forming such a coating that the insects couldn't chew threw it.

By the late 1940s, farmers started using other pesticides, but lead doesn't break down or move in soil.

And for the most part, the same is true for arsenic.

So, much of the lead arsenate sprayed here, even 100 years ago, is still in the soil today.

It's estimated that legacy lead and arsenic contaminates more than 187,000 acres of old orchards in central Washington.

That's an area roughly the size of Seattle and Portland put together.

That's a lot of acres.

You can't dig that up and cart it away.

And here's the problem.

That lead and arsenic poses a health risk to people who come into contact with it, especially children.

Lead is bad for young brains at any level.

There's no level that we consider safe for kids.

And it crosses the blood-brain barrier until you're about six years old, and it affects your brain.

The Washington Department of Ecology knows contaminated soil is a problem.

It's done cleanup projects at 26 contaminated schools but stopped before cleaning up the final two schools in Yakima.

The Department of Ecology says local communities and the state legislature haven't expressed much interest in cleaning up old orchard lands.

Valerie Bound oversees central Washington's toxics-cleanup program.

If I had people who were calling on a regular basis and wanting information, I would see a need.

This is an agricultural community.

Everybody knows people who are in the industry.

There's also the issue of money.

Cleaning up one school can cost more than $500,000.

Bound says the Department of Ecology has used up its funds for cleaning up old orchard sites.

So, there aren't any plans to finish the school cleanups or move on to other places where children can play, like parks or daycares.

That doesn't sit well with Jose Luis Mendoza.

He operates several daycare centers in the Yakima area.

Mendoza learned last year that his daycare center was contaminated with lead and arsenic.

He decided to cover the contaminated soil with clean dirt and then put in a new lawn.

Little kids under six years, wherever they're playing -- if they're playing in the backyard, everything they put in their mouth.

Mendoza wanted to make sure the cleanup worked.

So, he asked state officials to retest the topsoil on his property.

So, that top layer looks great.

Okay.

And it could be because that's the clean stuff you brought in.

Mm-hmm.

These ones down a little lower here, we'll see what's down underneath.

That dirt shows evidence that the daycare was indeed built on old orchard land.

But Mendoza had already done what state officials would have recommended to keep kids safe.

The clean dirt keeps the contaminated soil away from kids.

It's like, 'Oh, the Department of Ecology, they have to take care of it.'

No, we are living in the community.

We are part of the community.

We have to take care of it.

We have to do it together.

When developers build or sell homes on former orchards, they aren't required to disclose potential soil contamination.

Until that changes or the state decides to pay for more cleanups, many residents won't realize they're living with a legacy of pesticides.