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Simsbury Dilemma: The Water Beneath



By SUSAN B. BRACHWITZ
and MARK P. SILVERMAN

October 1 2006

Simsbury residents are struggling with a difficult issue - whether to allow a housing development over the main town aquifer or to preserve the land, the Ethel Walker Woods, in its natural state. The second choice may seem expensive, for the town's share of the purchase may be as much as $11.1 million - although this amount would probably be lowered by outside grants.

Nevertheless, the true cost of allowing the land to be developed will be far greater in the long run because of the virtual certainty that, over time, the drinking water will become contaminated by chemicals that come with housing developments.

Americans spread at least 800 million pounds of pesticides annually over 30 million acres in pursuit of ever greener and more perfect lawns. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, homeowners apply 10 times more pesticides per acre to lawns than farmers use on crops. Indeed, 5 to 12 million pounds a year of pesticides are applied in residential areas of Connecticut alone.

Unfortunately, this obsession with lawns is not just a harmless fetish. Lawn chemicals can trickle directly into groundwater through the soil or enter it after first washing into surface water as storm runoff. The four top-selling lawn pesticides, 2,4-D, glyphosate, MCPP and dicamba, all abundantly available in local stores, are listed as potential groundwater contaminants by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, which runs one of the most comprehensive pesticide regulation programs in the country. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for drinking water, many of the chemicals in pesticides pose health risks even at extremely low concentrations of parts per billion.

Scientists from the EPA have found that many households apply more than recommended doses of pesticides and do not read pesticide labels, follow directions or take proper precautions. And there are serious questions about whether lawn chemicals are safe even if used as directed. Most are associated with health risks, and not just those mentioned on the label.

Labels are only required to list summaries of acute toxicity of active ingredients. Usually, more than 90 percent of a formulation is so-called "inert ingredients," which need not be identified on the label. But inert doesn't mean harmless. In this context, "inert" is a euphemism meaning "not intended to affect the target pest." But numerous "inerts" are suspected carcinogens or other poisons to the central nervous system, liver and kidney.

Also, labels are not required to notify customers of the risks of long-term health effects, such as cancer and neurotoxicity (i.e. toxicity to the nervous system). Some of the most popular locally available pesticides, including 2,4-D, malathion and dicamba, are recognized neurotoxins. The National Academy of Sciences has reported that exposure to neurotoxic compounds at levels believed safe for adults can be dangerous to fetuses, infants and young children.

Furthermore, of 11 pesticides we noted this spring in a large local store, seven are listed by the Pesticide Action Network North America database as likely or possible carcinogens, six are suspected endocrine disrupters, which interfere with the functioning of thyroid hormones and others, and three are toxic to the developmental or reproductive systems.

Pesticides are not the only toxic chemicals that make their way from residential areas into an underlying aquifer. Others include nitrates from fertilizer and organic waste; household cleaners; paints, solvents, thinners and strippers; antifreeze, gasoline, kerosene and motor oil; septic tank additives; water conditioner discharges; and hair dyes and medicines, to cite a few.

These common substances, poured down a sink, toilet or storm drain, can end up in the aquifer. Once this has happened, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get them out. A contaminated aquifer can be ruined forever as a source of drinking water.

Sewers would help, but are not required for the type of development proposed for the Ethel Walker site. Even if sewers were used, they would not prevent seepage from intensive lawn care, chemical spills and leaks, or the dumping of oil or paints on the ground, which the state Department of Environmental Protection has found to be a common practice.

The aquifer under the Ethel Walker Woods provides 73 percent of Simsbury's municipal drinking water. This aquifer is particularly susceptible to contamination from surface pollutants because of its coarse-grained structure, its shallow or exposed water table, its lack of impermeable cover and the abundant rainfall in this area. There are no municipal or state regulations that adequately protect it.

Some have argued that the town should allow development, but restrict pesticide use there. This is not an option. A town regulation prohibiting pesticide use on an aquifer would be not only unenforceable, but actually illegal if the pesticides involved are permitted by the state.

Ironically, the state Department of Public Health would prohibit development of this land if it were owned by a water company, but not if privately owned. The best thing any town can do to ensure the safety of its water supply is to acquire land or development rights in its aquifer protection areas and keep it as natural open space. The permanent safeguarding of Simsbury's main aquifer is without question the best possible gift current residents can give themselves and future generations in this town.

Susan B. Brachwitz has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and studies aquatic and wetland ecology. Mark P. Silverman is a professor of physics at Trinity College and studies processes of environmental degradation and global climate change. Both are Simsbury residents.

Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant