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Potent carcinogen contaminated drinking water used by millions, says report


WASHINGTON — Shell Oil Co. and Dow Chemical hid a cancer-causing chemical in two commonly-used pesticides that contaminated the drinking water of millions of people in the state of California, according to lawsuits detailed in a report from the Environmental Working Group earlier this month.

TCP, a poisonous insecticide gas, was used for decades in the pesticide Telone, made by Dow, and D-D, made by Shell.

Shell stopped using D-D in 1984, while Dow ceased usage of Telone during the late 1990s. But “garbage” chemical TCP was found in tap water supplies of about four million people in 13 states between 2013 to 2015, according to the nonprofit group.

Dow also saved millions of dollars a year by failing to properly dispose TCP, or 1,2,3-trichloropropane.

Why should this concern all Americans?

Two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts and one-third of its vegetables come from the Golden State, with a majority grown in the San Joaquin Valley.

“The chemical agriculture industry keeps telling us that the amounts of pesticides in our food and water are too small to harm us,” Bill Walker, EWG managing editor and report co-author, told us Thursday. “Yet study after study comes out showing that exposure to even very small doses of pesticides can cause harm – especially during critical periods of brain development for fetuses and newborn babies.”

In 2008, the city of Bakersfield filed a lawsuit against Dow and Shell, accusing the companies of knowingly polluting water wells with TCP.

A year later, trace amounts of TCP were discovered in a well that served about 5,000 households and businesses in Aptos, a city south of Santa Cruz. The chemical was believed to be left over from a farm that operated during the 1950s – more than half a century ago.

“The TCP story raises disturbing questions about how many other unknown toxic chemicals are hiding in products or being sold as safe or useful even when their makers know they aren’t,” Walker added.

According to the EWG, the prospect of getting caught by regulators isn’t a concern to companies like Shell, which made a profit of $3.5 billion in 2016. Fines and settlements are viewed as “the cost of doing business,” which seem meager when compared to the massive amount of profit that can be made.

“The bottom line is that the way we regulate chemicals in this country is badly broken,” Walker explained. “Chemicals are introduced into the marketplace without being tested for safety, often by companies simply notifying the EPA or FDA. When the EPA or FDA do start looking at a harmful chemical in water or food, the process of risk assessment, setting a standard or banning it can take years or decades.”

Earlier this month, the Soquel Creek Water District of California filed a lawsuit against the two companies, claiming TCP was found in a drinking water well near a local golf course.

“You only have to look at the soaring demand for organic food, which even big box stores like Costco can’t keep up with, to see that Americans would prefer not to be exposed to harmful chemical pesticides,” Walker said.

How can we protect ourselves from the harmful effects of pesticides?

First, invest in a water filter, advised Walker. A guide to purchasing filters can be found here. Choose organic foods whenever possible, or grow your own. A list of the most and least pesticide-laden produce can be found here.

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