East Hampton’s East End Community Organic Farm, long the butt of community worries about lingering toxins in the soil, received good news earlier this fall — levels of arsenic have been falling dramatically in recent years to levels below those found in average Long Island soils.
Arsenic was a major component of pesticides slathered over Long Island’s farm fields in the early years of the 20th Century, a practice that was encouraged by the federal government in the name of increasing crop yields.
But after a cluster of students at neighboring East Hampton High School was found to have cancer in the mid-1990s, scrutiny of historic pesticide use at nearby farmland has been heightened, after doctors concluded that the cancer cluster was due to a cocktail of factors ranging from pesticide use to genetic predisposition.
Nowhere has there been more scrutiny than at the EECO Farm, a non-profit community-based 42-acre farm that leases land across the street from the high school from East Hampton Town. The farm consists of 120 individual 20′ X 20′ plots leased to members of the community who pledge to use organic methods to grow their crops, and some fields that are cultivated by commercial growers.
Earlier this year, leaders of the East Hampton/Sag Harbor Citizens Advisory Committee made headlines when members criticized the safety of produce at the farm — some even saying they wouldn’t dare eat food grown there, creating an uproar despite the farm’s active effort to mitigate lingering pesticides in the soil in the 15 years they have been stewards of the land.
East Hampton Town tested the soil in mid-October, and made the results of the testing known at the town board’s Dec. 6 work session.
Town Natural Resources Director Kim Shaw told the board the sampling, conducted by American Analytical Laboratories, found that arsenic levels had fallen 30 percent from the last time they were tested in 2011, to an average of 27.1 mg/kg. Earlier testing in 2005 showed an average of 40.6 mg/kg of arsenic in the soil.
While the United States has no legal standard for arsenic levels in agricultural soil, the European Union sets the limit at 50 mg/kg.
Cornell Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist Sandy Menasha told the town board that agricultural soils on Long Island range from 27.8 to 50.1 mg/kg of arsenic in the soil, due to the historic use of arsenic pesticides, while the naturally occurring rate of arsenic in non-agricultural Long Island soils averages 2.26 mg/kg.
Ms. Shaw said that two vegetable samples taken from the EECO Farm, a pepper and a squash, had “non-detectable levels of arsenic.”
Ms. Menasha said that’s not surprising, since if toxic levels of arsenic are present in the soil, plants won’t produce a crop anyway.
Ms. Menasha said people who eat crops grown on Long Island should remember that arsenic binds tightly to soil, and it’s the ingestion of soil, not of the crops that are grown in the soil, that is the biggest exposure risk.
“It comes from direct exposure through ingestion of soil, inhalation of dust or eating unwashed or unpeeled vegetables,” she said. “You don’t want your child playing in the soil without supervision or gloves.”
Many members of the public shared their concerns about the lingering taint on EECO Farm’s reputation in the community.
Prudence Carabine, whose son, Sean Carabine, was one of the students who became sick with lymphoma in the early 1990s and died in 2007 after a long fight, said she believes EECO Farm is doing the right thing by continuing to monitor the soil.
“It’s sad to keep addressing this subject because it’s painful to me, but the reality is we have a wonderful farm, the EECO Farm, which is continuously tested by the town and still shows the presence of arsenic,” she said. “I feel very strongly that EECO Farm is doing the right thing by mitigating this poison. Over time EECO Farm will continue to do the right thing. But this poison is not going away within my lifetime.”
East Hampton resident Paul Fiondella said that “East Hampton has a way of making a mountain out of a molehill,” and added that community gardeners at the EECO Farm work hard to grow vegetables organically.
“Many different kinds of pesticides were used in this town on farm fields,” he said. “If you go to the supermarket, you’re most likely buying vegetables treated with pesticides.”
Mr. Fiondella added that there is a Suffolk County Water Authority water line on Long Lane, and if the farm wanted to further reassure people of the safety there, they could hook up to public water instead of using their own well.
Long Island Farm Bureau Public Policy Director Jessica Anson told the board that she was “disappointed and confused” by the uproar over the CAC statements, adding that they were “the opinion of a vocal minority. They were not factual and not good science.”
“The food grown on Long Island is safe,” she added, saying that raising issues about pesticides applied 60 years ago is “unjustly harmful to our farmers.”
EECO Farm board member Don Cirillo said the farm spends $400 to $500 per year testing the soil, despite the fact that the U.S. has no standards for arsenic in soil.
“This became a political issue among people who are anti-EECO Farm for their own personal reasons,” he said. “It’s like the favorite whipping boy of the Town of East Hampton. If you don’t want to grow produce there, don’t come, but anybody is welcome.”
Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said that, since the property is owned by the town, he believes it’s important to provide transparent information about the safety of the soil.
“We’re here because this is public property,” he said. “The public is making use of these small plots. It’s the town’s responsibility to get some information.”
Mr. Cantwell said the town would provide the results of the testing to the New York State Department of Health for feedback.