ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- A group of university scientists and public health researchers are searching for funding to launch long-term human health and environmental monitoring studies in Mead, Nebraska, after an ethanol plant leaked pesticide-laced contaminants into the environment for several years.
The source of the pollution were corn seeds treated with neonicotinoid insecticides and fungicides, which the ethanol plant, AltEn, accepted from most major seed companies until it was shut down this spring by the state. The plant did not dispose of the pesticide-contaminated distillers grains and wastewater properly, and pesticides have leached into neighboring streams and surface water, injuring wildlife and raising concerns of human health effects in the surrounding Saunders County. (See more here: https://www.dtnpf.com/…)
"We decided we needed to conduct a broad investigation into what kind of health effects are actually happening," said Eleanor Rogan, a professor and chair at the University of Nebraska Medical Center's (UNMC) College of Public Health. Residents living near the ethanol plant and fields where contaminated DDGs were spread have complained of health effects, she said. "And we know through our research and others that water from the AltEn plant runs to the southeast, through creeks and reservoirs, and there is environmental damage there already, and there is a concern that it could reach the Platte River," she said.
Rogan and others spoke at a session of the Water for Food Conference on Thursday. She and her colleagues explained that the monitoring effort will be two-pronged: first, routine sampling and monitoring of surface and ground water, via Nebraska's Water Sciences Laboratory. Second, the launch of a long-term medical registry where residents could sign up and have their health monitored for five to 10 years. "We're particularly concerned about infants and small children because neonicotinoids are neurotoxins, and we want to see if there are any problems with exposures for these children," Rogan said. Exposure could come from contaminated water or dust from the piles of DDGs, she said.
In the short-term, research suggests that people exposed to high levels of neonicotinoid pesticides would show respiratory problems and neurological effects, such as memory loss, finger tremors and headaches, said Ali Khan, dean of the College of Public Health at UNMC. In the long-term, researchers are less certain what to expect, but animal studies show toxicity effects on fertility, liver, brain and genetic health, he said.
"The third area of concern is the exposure of pregnant woman," Khan said. "That is the one that gives me the greatest pause, because there is potentially a lifelong impact for women who have had or are having children in Mead, Nebraska."
LOOKING FOR FUNDING
Funding, however, is tight and the group is actively looking for more support, after donations from philanthropic groups got the effort started. "I'm very hopeful that the state and other organizations, both research and philanthropic, will provide funding to support these studies and we can establish a registry for individuals, where we can routinely collect samples and monitor their health," Khan said. A functional, effective long-term registry like this would require up to a $1 million a year, for 10 years, he estimated.
The seed companies that sent the pesticide-treated seed to AltEn -- and are spearheading the clean-up at the facility -- are not financially supporting the research, Khan said.
Communication with EPA on the research effort has been very limited, and the group has no access to the facility, as efforts to contact the owners have been ignored, the researchers added.
In the meantime, the group has been collecting ground and surface water samples in areas surrounding AltEn each month since April, trying to get a feeling for the extent of the pollution run-off from the facility, said Dan Snow, director of the Water Sciences Laboratory.
Past monitoring of pesticide levels in eastern Nebraska watersheds gave his team a good baseline for what is normal, based on regular agricultural use of treated seed, he said. Water leaving the AltEn facility has far higher concentrations, he said.
"In comparison to what we find from traditional use of treated seed, these concentrations are 10 to 100 times higher than what we expect from normal runoff from fields planted with treated seed," he said. The researchers are also finding very high levels of degradation products -- the compounds that emerge when the original neonicotinoids break down -- which are even more toxic, he added. "From data we've generated so far, we see pretty high levels of some of these degradation products, some of which can be several hundred times more toxic than their parent compound," he said.
LEVELS ABOVE SAFE THRESHOLDS
So far, public testing by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) has found neonicotinoid and fungicides surfacing at levels above EPA thresholds for safety in ponds and streams several miles away from the plant. In September, state testing found some pesticide traces in groundwater as well -- in a private well six miles from the plant and a public water supply at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center. (See more here: http://dee.ne.gov/…)
The university research team is also hoping to take samples to test from the cattle feedlot located adjacent to the ethanol plant, which contains livestock still being sent to market, Rogan said. "We hope to do that sometime in November," she said.
In the meantime, University of Nebraska Extension entomologist Judy Wu-Smart and epidemiologist Elizabeth VanWormer will examine wildlife and insects for exposures and effects. Wu-Smart was among the very first to sound the alarm on contamination coming from the AltEn facility, after she started documenting unusual bee kills at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center starting in 2017.
Bees, Wu-Smart explained, can serve as "bio-indicators of environmental quality," since they travel miles and pick up all sorts of particles on their fuzzy bodies, designed to trap and carry pollen home to the hive.
What will become of the 84,000 tons of contaminated DDGs and the 176 million gallons of wastewater sitting on the AltEn site is not yet known. A group of six seed companies -- AgReliant Genetics, Bayer, Beck's Hybrids, Corteva Agriscience, Syngenta and WinField Solutions -- have hired contractors such as Clean Harbors and NewFields to manage the clean-up, but the piles and water remain for now. No local landfills are willing to accept it, Snow noted.
Nor is it clear how companies will pivot to dispose of millions of bushels of treated seed discards, which can no longer be sent to the ethanol facility. The Pesticide Stewardship Appliance (TPSA) has launched a task force to examine potential disposal options, including incineration and landfills, state by state. But seed companies have declined to answer questions from DTN on where treated seed will go in the meantime.
The problem climbs to the federal levels of government, said Snow, since EPA exempts treated seed from its full registration and monitoring, via the treated articles exemption to its governing law, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).
To read more about how seed treatment use has expanded, with minimal regulation, and the environmental and human health concerns that have arisen from it, see this DTN investigation here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.firstname.lastname@example.org
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