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#98 - What We Must Do -- Part 8 What The Poisoners Knew In 1961, 09-Oct-1988

Continuing our series, What we must do: We first looked at the waste
industry which buries poisonous chemicals in the ground for the
producers of those chemicals; now we are looking at the producers
themselves, asking when they learned about the toxicity of their
products and the effects those products would have if dumped onto, or
into, the ground. Did they ever have reason to believe people would not
be poisoned?

The U.S. Public Health Service sponsored a national conference in
April, 1961, entitled "Ground Water Contamination." Three hundred
experts attended from government, industry and universities. The 1961
report of the conference summarizes a large body of scientific
knowledge that had accumulated during the first half of the 20th
century. The report makes it crystal clear that the entire problem of
groundwater contamination from chemical waste disposal, and from
landfilling of municipal wastes, was well understood, well documented,
and the subject of urgent warnings in 1961.

The picture in 1961 was essentially as we know it today:

95% of the nation's surface waters were being used in 1961 so
"groundwater affords the only water resource available for supplying
much of the anticipated three-fold increase in the amount of water that
will be required 30 years from now [i.e., in 1991]," said the U.S.
Geological Survey. (pg. 32)

Underground water is vulnerable to poisoning by chemicals, because when
chemicals are dumped onto, or into, the ground, gravity pulls them down
until they reach the saturated zone, the large lakelike body of water
called groundwater. This view of the earth was described in detail at
the conference by the U.S. Geological Survey. (pgs. 4, 8)

"Passage of landfill leachate through sand or gravel may be expected to
improve conditions so far as bacterial and organic pollution is
concerned, but chemical pollution can be expected to reach the ground
water...," said the U.S. Public Health Service. (pg. 109)

Bacteria are filtered out by the soil and only travel a few hundred
feet; chemicals, on the other hand, can travel as far as 15,000 feet or
more through soil. Evidence supporting this view was presented by the
U.S. Geological Survey, as well as by university researchers. (pgs. 37,
108, 213)

Groundwater does not mix the way a turbulent surface stream mixes. In
addition, the earth below ground is dark and cool, and the population
of bacteria below ground is much smaller than on the surface.
Consequently, contaminated groundwater tends to remain contaminated for
long periods, or forever.

"Although our present information on the persistence of organic
contaminants in groundwater is limited, indications are that once such
materials reach the water table they may persist for long periods of
time," said the U.S. Public Health Service. (pg. 54)

One outstanding example of groundwater poisoning was the subject of
several presentations--the situation in Suffolk County (Long Island),
New York. There, chromium wastes and municipal solid wastes had ruined
water quality in the 1950s.

"Ground water is extremely vul-nerable to contamination by the
introduction of industrial and domestic wastes into subsurface leaching
systems. This is evidenced by the numerous incidents of contamination
that are constantly being brought to light by complaints and spot check
water quality surveys," said the Suffolk County Health Department. (pg.

"We have found from bitter experience that it is unwise to depend on
any dilution factor in our ground waters. Hexavalent chromium was found
to have traveled over a mile from the source of contamination and with
concentrations as high as 40 ppm off the plant site," said another
representative of the Suffolk County Health Department. (pg. 155)

The population of Suffolk County, Long Island produces 450,000 tons of
garbage each year [in 1961]; a small part of this is incinerated and
the remainder "is incorporated in raw form into landfill. Undoubtedly
the decomposition of vast quantities of organic material is affecting
the ground water" near each of the county's 19 landfills, said the
Suffolk County health department. (pg. 75)

"[The U.S. Public Health Service] described the newcomer in the field
of contaminants, organic [chemicals]. Most common offenders are
gasoline, oil, detergents, and phenols. As recently as 1952, only a few
states recognized organics as a problem. Now the problem is full blown,
but knowledge is scarce.... A feature of organic pollution is its
persistence; it has been shown to travel 15,000 feet over a period of 7
years," said the Illinois State Water Survey. (pg. 213).

"Of more immediate concern is the organic, inorganic, and bacterial
pollution of ground water that can result from improperly located dumps
and landfills," said the Illinois State Water Survey. (pg. 214).

The Suffolk County health department warned that industrial innovation,
the creation of new chemicals, had already in 1961 overwhelmed
society's ability to cope with the resulting problems. They also
pointed out that regulatory authorities were not the ones discovering
the damage: people using the water were discovering it the hard way--by
being poisoned. After poisonings occur, then the regulators get
involved; this is still true today.

"The nature of the waste introduced into our ground water changes as
rapidly as new products are produced by our chemical industries. These
wastes become firmly entrenched in our ground water long before we have
an opportunity to evaluate their effect," said the Suffolk County
Health Department. (pg. 82)

Health officials learn of groundwater contamination not by vigilant
enforcement of laws, but because users complain of bad taste and odors,
said the Suffolk County Health Department. (pg. 76)

"I was struck by the fact that we professionals have generally not been
the ones who initially uncovered ground water contamination. More
likely the revelation stemmed from citizens' complaints of taste and
odor, or foam, or crop damage, or sickness," said the Illinois State
Water Survey. (pg. 214)

"Many incidents of contamination resulting from waste dumping into pits
or upon the surface in highly permeable sands or gravels have been
reported. Some of these have required the abandonment of private wells
and great personal hardship.... Where materials are dumped onto the
ground, normal observation should detect the potential danger to ground
waters. It is when, under the guise of 'good citizenship,' fluids are
injected into the ground that detection may be delayed until actual
damage has occurred," said a private consulting engineer. (pgs. 118-

"One thing stands out in all the reports on the subject--we are up
against another crisis resulting from man's perversity in breaking the
laws of nature," said a conservation consultant in 1961.

The U.S. Public Health Service's report, GROUND WATER CONTAMINATION
(Cincinnati, OH: Robert A. Taft Sanitary Engineering Center, 1961) is
still available from the National Technical Information Service in
Springfield, VA; document No. PB 214 895; it's $25.95 plus $3.00
shipping. Phone (703) 487-4650.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: liability; groundwater; water pollution; conferences;
phs; history of pollution;

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