Skip to main content

Contaminated Soil Lingers Where Apples Once Grew

caption: Jennifer Garcia with her daughter, Hannah, 2. Garcia found out the soil in her yard tested high for arsenic. It’s left over from pesticides sprayed before the 1950s on this same piece of land, when it was an orchard.
Enlarge Icon
Jennifer Garcia with her daughter, Hannah, 2. Garcia found out the soil in her yard tested high for arsenic. It’s left over from pesticides sprayed before the 1950s on this same piece of land, when it was an orchard.

YAKIMA, Wash. -- At homes and day care centers throughout Central Washington, children play in yards contaminated with lead and arsenic.

The state’s Department of Ecology knows about this, and has for decades.

But many parents and caregivers still do not, despite the risks these chemicals pose specifically to children.

Until the 1950s, Northwest apple growers spent decades spraying lead arsenate pesticides in a never-ceasing battle against the codling moth, which once threatened the country’s most productive tree fruit region.(1)

That spraying contaminated an estimated 187,000 acres of former orchard lands throughout Washington — an area that exceeds the size of Seattle and Portland combined.(2)

As a result, the soil at hundreds of properties contains levels of lead and arsenic that, through long-term exposure, can lower children's IQs, cause behavioral problems or increase cancer risks later in life.(3)

Washington, unlike many states, has studied and mapped the extent of lead and arsenic contamination.(4) It cleaned up 26 public schools on former orchards.(5)

But the apple industry and politicians resisted efforts to make a bigger issue of contamination on former orchards. Evidence of actual exposures was scant, they said; too much noise about lead and arsenic would hurt the region’s apple growers, they contended.

Meanwhile, the state’s cleanup efforts faded.

Public funds for orchard-era pollution dried up before at least two schools with contaminated soil were cleaned up.(6) Legislative efforts were blocked.(7) Recommended cleanups and exposure studies were shelved.(8) Awareness campaigns stalled.(9) Data was lost.(10) Meanwhile, the contamination lingers and families have been left in the dark.

“Ecology is aware of all this stuff. They have a legal right to enforce this stuff, but they’re choosing not to,” said Frank Peryea, who studied lead and arsenic for decades with Washington State University. He said state regulators have no easy answer for such widespread contamination.

The property developer and the government knew Norm Hepner’s subdivision was contaminated decades before he bought his house. Nobody told him.

Heritage Hills, on the outskirts of Yakima, was built on an old orchard. A private firm tested the property in 1993. Its report to the developer included two samples showing lead and arsenic several times above the threshold the state uses as its standard for cleanups. It recommended “no further action” was necessary.(11)

A concerned local attorney sent a letter to the Department of Ecology, including that report.(12)

But the state never required a cleanup at Heritage Hills. New homes started popping up in the 2000s.(13) By the time Hepner bought his a few years ago -- not from the developer but from its first owner -- he said high lead and arsenic levels were not disclosed, as state law requires for known soil contamination.(14)

Hepner instead discovered it because, until 2014, he handled toxic cleanups for Ecology. Now retired and working independently, Hepner said his former agency hasn’t done enough to protect children from exposure to lead and arsenic.(39)

“I think they’ve failed children from age 0-5, and I think they’ve failed the general public,” he said.

Hepner inverted his soil to bring clean dirt to the surface. He covered parts of his yard in pea gravel or bark.

He said Ecology should ensure those precautions are taken at homes, parks and day cares throughout the region. He contends the state spends too much of its toxic cleanup fund on sites such as ports and retired gas stations, where toxic chemicals exist but vulnerable populations are less likely to come into contact with them.

“They might care, but they don’t care enough,” Hepner said of his former employer. “Because there’s more that they could do.”

Valerie Bound, toxics cleanup manager for Ecology in Central Washington and Hepner’s former boss, does not discredit him or his concerns.

But Bound has a staff of 12 and limited funding for roughly 500 contaminated sites needing attention, she said. Lately, the agency and the Legislature have set other priorities.

“I care. I think we all care,” Bound said. “Does caring translate into money? Does it translate into resources?”

There's more in our report on legacy contamination on former orchards:

Washington law exempts farmers from liability for pesticides they applied legally,(15) so the state cannot force them to pay for cleanup. And subsequent owners of old orchard lands can’t sue them over contamination, either.

Bound said she has not asked for more money for lead and arsenic cleanup, nor does she plan to. She said the public has not pushed for more action.

EarthFix tested multiple samples from 20 residential properties in Yakima and Wenatchee using methods recommended by Ecology. Samples from 15 of those contained arsenic or lead above Washington’s cleanup threshold.(16) One resident from that sampling was aware of potential lead arsenate contamination.

It started with the worm in the apple.

At the turn of the 20th century, the codling moth wreaked havoc on Washington’s apple industry.(17) Orchardists dumped crate after crate of apples that were inedible and rotten to the core with the brown mush of larval excrement.

Without something to control the pest, what’s now the most productive apple growing region in the country might never have been.

“If we were not controlling codling moth, this river would be full of apples floating down it,” said Jack Pheasant, pointing to the Columbia River where it flows past downtown Wenatchee. Pheasant, 76, grew up on an orchard near Tonasket and now owns a 50-acre orchard south of Wenatchee.

“They had no place to dump it, so you’d dump it in the river,” he said.

The introduction of lead arsenate to Northwest orchards in the early 1900s changed that.(18) The industry flourished with the pesticide in widespread use for decades. Orchardists mixed it and sprayed from wagons. Some pumped it through built-in irrigators.

But by the 1930s, the codling moth grew resistant. Lead arsenate began to lose its effectiveness -- much like Roundup on modern cornfields where weeds became more resistant to the chemical. Orchardists countered this by spraying heavier doses with higher frequency. This lasted for nearly two decades.(19)

Pheasant remembers watching his father spray continually, starting again at one end as soon as he finished on the other.

“The only way you could protect your apples was by keeping them constantly coated with the material, so that codling moth would hopefully not penetrate,” Pheasant said.

By the late 1940s growers replaced lead arsenate with a chemical known as DDT.(20) It, too, was later banned because of its harm to human health and the environment. Lead and arsenic do not break down in soil and migrate far less than DDT and other pesticides used since. Anything spilled or sprayed that reached the ground 100 years ago is still within the top foot of soil, said Peryea, professor emeritus at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee.

Peryea spent decades studying lead and arsenic contamination. He served on a state task force studying contamination in 2003 and now calls the state’s inaction in Central Washington “disappointing but not unexpected.”

Peryea said one of the safest ways to handle lead and arsenic in orchard soil is to keep the property in tree-fruit production. That limits children’s exposure. And research has shown the contamination does not transfer from the roots into the fruit.

That has happened more in Oregon. The state has stricter land-use laws for converting farmland to other uses.21 Conversion has happened there, but state officials do not know the extent of contamination. Efforts to study, map and clean up lingering pesticides on converted farmland in Oregon have not been as thorough or as systematic as those in Washington.22

Cleaning up land contaminated with lead arsenate can be costly. Peryea said it has neared $1 million per acre in some cases to excavate, dispose of the contaminated soil and replace it with clean dirt.

There are simple steps to prevent exposure like covering bare dirt, frequent hand washing, leaving shoes outside and gardening in raised beds.

“If I lived in a place that was was an old orchard, I’d be very careful about letting my kids play in the soil,” Peryea said.

Chronic lead exposure does its damage in early childhood. Arsenic’s effects appears later in life. Lead in a child’s blood causes behavioral problems, lowered IQ and stunted growth. Health officials say no level of lead in a child’s blood is safe. Repeated arsenic exposure is linked to heart disease, diabetes and various forms of cancer.(3)

Exposure from soil can happen through either direct or incidental ingestion or through inhalation of soil turned to dust.

A growing body of research across the country points to soil as a prominent cause of lead exposure for children, with some studies concluding it’s a more likely source of exposure than lead paint from old homes.(23)

However, attempts to measure the public health impact from soil contamination in Washington specifically have been inconclusive.

Why you can trust KUOW