Poisoning of water well by strawberry fumigant injures family



Thursday, December 5, 2002 - Print Edition, Page A11 - The Globe and Mail Wells in PEI farming hamlet contaminated by pesticide Four children sick for almost two years; mother told drinking water is tainted By KEVIN COX

A PEI woman is angry and apprehensive after being told by provincial officials that her family of six has been drinking water from a well contaminated by a pesticide sprayed on a nearby strawberry field.

Elda Getson of Alberton said her four school-age children have been plagued with an influenza-like illness for nearly two years and her family doctor has been unable to determine what is causing symptoms that include nausea and headaches.

They and three other Alberton residents have been using bottled water for the past week. Tests done by the provincial Department of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Environment found that the levels of the soil fumigant dichloropropene in her family's drinking water were more than 20 times the acceptable guideline determined by the federal Department of Health. Tests showed Ms. Getson's well water contained as much as 11 parts per billion of the fumigant while the acceptable level is 0.5 parts per billion.

The fumigant is used to treat nematodes in some crops and to sterilize soil. It is so rarely found in drinking water that federal health officials have been unable to tell Ms. Getson or the three other Alberton residents who have also been drinking the contaminated water what the health risks are.

There are no guidelines for dichloropropene in drinking water in Canada, but it is considered a potential carcinogen by regulatory authorities in the United States.

"I don't know what to think anymore. You wonder why healthy children should all of a sudden be sick," Ms. Getson, who has lived near the field for four years, said yesterday. "I'm angry and bewildered and scared. No one seems to know much about the long-term health effects of this."

She said she has received no help from the PEI government as she tries to find out if living near the strawberry field owned by the Westech Agriculture Industries made her children ill.

Tests on the water used on 22 properties in the area were done in early November after complaints by many Alberton residents who were demanding a buffer zone between their homes and nearby farms. The tests found that four wells contained abnormally high levels of the soil fumigant.

The province hasn't made public the dichloropropene levels on the properties. Environment Minister Chester Gillan said earlier this week that more tests on the well water in the community are being done and officials in his department are consulting with federal health officials.

Mr. Gillan did not return phone calls yesterday.

Discovery of the fumigant has renewed the continuing debate about the use of pesticides on the predominantly agricultural island. There have been several major fish kills in rivers and streams in recent years caused by the runoff of farm chemicals. Farmers and pesticide manufacturers say the chemicals are safe if they are used properly, but environmentalists are demanding restrictions or outright bans on the use of many of the chemicals.

"There have been fish kills, but now this is affecting humans," Ms. Getson said. "It was affecting our wildlife and our streams and now it's coming into people's homes and we're helpless."

She said the provincial and federal government must conduct more stringent reviews of chemicals before they are licensed for use and suggested that buffer zones should be established to keep pesticides away from residential areas.

The local environmental group Earth Action is considering legal action against the PEI government and the owner of the field over the pollution of the Alberton wells.

"We know that their action is going to be to bring in some sort of regulations to mitigate the effects of these chemicals and those are going to be ineffective as they always are," Sharon Labchuk of Earth Action said yesterday. 

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