As long as people have operated farms, they have feared agricultural pests.
People have used pesticides of one sort or another for more than 4,000 years. The earliest known one was in ancient Sumeria, where elemental sulfur was used to protect crops. But the modern pesticides industry traces its roots to the first half of the 20th century with the invention of chemicals such as DDT, dieldrin, aldrin and the infamous Zyklon-B, which was created as a pesticide but later used in Nazi extermination camps.
The purpose of most pesticides is to harm living organisms, so it should come as no surprise that wastes from the manufacture of these products, as well as their use, can pose serious risks to human health and the environment.
In the 1950s and 60s, the wetlands around Little Neck Bay were routinely sprayed with DDT to control mosquitoes. It didn't work - we still had plenty of them - but it did contribute to a problem that afflicted many bird species around the world, particularly eagles and ospreys. The DDT caused their egg shells to be very thin, and many eggs broke before they could hatch. Their populations plummeted until some years after DDT was banned in the mid-1970s when their numbers slowly began to rebound.
As , our local osprey population thrives in large measure because of that ban.
Of perhaps greater concern to human residents, underground drinking water supplies in agricultural areas such as Suffolk County, which had a lot of farms until relatively recently, are often contaminated with pesticides applied to the crops on the surface.
Solvents are another common groundwater contaminant. From paint thinners and cleaning agents to manufacturing intermediates, solvents are ubiquitous in the industrial world. Water itself is, of course, a solvent. The word means that other substances can be dissolved in it. Less harmless is turpentine, which is distilled from the sap of pine trees and has been used since ancient times.
But our modern industrial society has developed myriad new chemical solvents, many of which are far more dangerous. Two of the most common are trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene, which is also known as perchloroethylene, PCE or “perc”. The former is used in a wide variety of industries, from extraction of vegetable oils to medical anesthesia, but is most commonly used as a degreaser and cleaner for metals and electronics.
The latter is most commonly used as dry cleaning fluid. Both are probable human carcinogens, and are frequently found at toxic waste sites. In the U.S., TCE and PCE are contaminants at well over half of all sites on the federal government's Superfund list of the worst toxic waste sites in the country.
Indeed, the federal Superfund site nearest to the Douglaston/Little Neck community is a former dry cleaning operation located just across the County line in Great Neck. Stanton Cleaners operated on Cutter Mill Road, just east of the intersection with Bayview Avenue and behind the gas station on the corner. Like so many other dry cleaners, Stanton dumped its used "perc" into the ground through a drain, where it contaminated the groundwater below.
This is bad enough under any circumstances, but here it was particularly dangerous, because Stanton was only about 300 yards away from a Great Neck drinking water supply well. To make matters even worse, perc vapors from the contaminated groundwater were getting into nearby homes and a synagogue.
The Stanton site was added to the Superfund list in 1999 and the Environmental Protection Agency installed a "pump-and-treat" system. Contaminated groundwater is pumped up to a small building at the back of the dry cleaner's parking lot. There it is treated to strip away the perc and returned clean to the ground. More than 200 million gallons have been treated to date.
A treatment system was also installed at the drinking water well and vapors are vacuumed from the soil before they can reach homes and other buildings. The current dry cleaning operation - a different company, though still using the Stanton name - has state-of-the-art equipment to prevent perc from entering the ground.
No overview of dangerous waste products from industrial processes would be complete without including radioactive wastes. These can come from nuclear power plants, but also other industries where radioactive materials are used, including medical diagnostics and the manufacture of smoke detectors.
In the first part of the 20th century, a company known as U.S. Radium had a plant in New Jersey where it extracted radium from ore. The radioactive radium was used for various purposes, including painting luminescent numbers on the dials of watches. A large amount of ore waste was left over that still contained radioactive elements. The company gave this material away free to builders who used it as fill for home construction in the area. Decades later, the Superfund program spent nearly $250 million to excavate the yards of hundreds of homes in order to remove the dangerous radioactive materials.
The homeowners weren't the only ones at risk. The workers who painted the watch dials - all women - had been told the radium was harmless. They sharpened their brushes by licking them and some even used the glow-in-the-dark paint on their nails.
Meanwhile, male hemists at the plant used plenty of protection. Many of the women suffered from severe radiation-related diseases and an unknown number died of their illness. Several workers, dubbed the Radium Girls, successfully sued the company, establishing an important legal precedent for worker safety rights and spurring major improvements in worker protection.
Some 100,000 different chemicals are in commercial use today, the vast majority of which never existed in nature. Many are essential to our modern way of life. But all of them can and do end up as wastes. We know that many of these chemicals are dangerous, some of them extremely so.
What we don’t know is potentially even more worrisome – most of those chemicals have never been tested. And even the ones that have been tested have generally been evaluated on their own, without consideration of possible synergistic effects from exposures to multiple chemicals.
In my next post, I'll write more about how we go about cleaning up toxic waste sites.