Nearby towns shrug off groundwater contamination in Stamford

One of every five private wells tested in Stamford has at least trace amounts of two carcinogenic pesticides, and about 60 have potentially dangerous levels, city officials report.

The most recent data from an ongoing testing program has turned up noticeable levels of chlordane or dieldrin in one-fifth of the 750 wells tested so far. Eight percent have levels above those deemed safe by the state, the officials say.

The data suggest that pesticide contamination is probably not confined to Stamford, but neighboring communities have not been eager to follow suit.

“You don’t have to just be in North Stamford,” said Anne Fountain, the city’s director of health. She was addressing a previous misconception that pesticide contamination is present only in wells north of the Merritt Parkway. “It’s anywhere in the city. Or even beyond the city. It doesn’t stop at our borders.”

Fountain said that the response she has gotten from local health directors has been “lukewarm.”

“When you talk to other communities, the reaction is, ‘Oh, it’s a Stamford problem,'” said Dr. Steve Lo, an oncologist at Stamford Hospital who has worked with the city to get the word out.

Chlordane and dieldrin were used widely by homeowners and farmers to control insects until the 1980s, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned them and declared them carcinogenic.

Stamford health officials first found the pesticides in wells near the Scofieldtown landfill in North Stamford, which prompted further testing throughout the city. A nonprofit group called North Stamford Concerned Citizens for the Environment also pushed for more comprehensive testing. But so far, efforts to conduct widespread testing have not spread beyond Stamford.

“We can’t just order them to test their water,” said Rob Farfaglia, supervisor of environmental health in Greenwich. “We can educate them… but it’s their property and generally people need to take responsibility for their own properties.”

Farfaglia estimated that at least several hundred households in Greenwich have private wells; in Stamford, at least 5,000 homes use groundwater wells, according to health officials.

Bethany Zaro, public health nurse for New Canaan’s health department, said the town has posted an advisory to its website about pesticide contamination in Fairfield County. But there are no plans for further public awareness efforts.

“It is a private issue and there are no mandates” for testing, Zaro said.

She added that few have made inquiries to the health department regarding the testing. “Actually, we’ve had a smaller reaction than we thought.”

Testing mandates and recommendations for groundwater vary significantly by town. Tim Callahan, Norwalk’s health director, said the city simply follows the state public health code and requires newly built wells to be tested for coliform bacteria levels. Testing for volatile organic compounds, pesticides, iron, manganese, arsenic or other chemicals — which is routine in other parts of the state — is not widespread.

“Unlike public drinking water, there are not many standards that [private wells] must meet,” he said.

Callahan said he is aware of the concerns about pesticides in Stamford, but his city hasn’t taken any action. “Most of our city is served by city water,” he said, although he thinks at least a few hundred households do use groundwater.

“I don’t know that much about what’s going on” in Stamford, Callahan said. “The first step for us is to learn more about it, and then we can make a decision as to a course of action for Norwalk.” Callahan said there are no current plans to test wells in Norwalk for pesticides.

The cost of testing — and remediation — is a major reason towns say they won’t require or heavily promote testing for pesticides in groundwater.

Farfaglia said that for newly drilled wells, Greenwich’s health department will test for acidity, odor, turbidity, manganese and arsenic, among other possible contaminants. Adding pesticides “would require special equipment, special training, and of course then the cost goes up,” he said.

But in Stamford, oncologist Lo said the demand for testing has resulted in a steep drop in cost.

The city contracted with a private lab so that residents could get their water tested for $100. But the city program only provides for testing 1,500 wells over two years, and more than 100 residents are already on the waiting list. Lo helped organize an alternate testing program that will cost $164.50, compared to a normal price of $300 to $400, he said.

“Basically we’re down to rock bottom,” Lo said. “I don’t think the test [price] is going to get lower than that.” At least 60 people have signed up for the alternate program, which launched in mid-June.

The cost of filtering contaminated water — which is done through a granular activated carbon filter — has also come down. Lo said it costs $1,600 to buy and install the filter; before demand rose, he was hearing figures like $3,000 to $4,000, he said. (Once the filter is installed, it costs about $300 a year to maintain.)

The hesitation on the part of many to get their water tested is probably related to concerns about real estate prices, said many at the meeting in Stamford this week. But Lo thinks that one day pesticide testing will be as normal as testing for other contaminants like radon.

Still, there will always be people who don’t see a need.

Farfaglia, Greenwich’s environmental supervisor, actually lives in North Stamford and has a well. He remembers when pesticides were readily available at the hardware store and his father sprayed them all over the house and lawn.

“These people put tons and tons of herbicides and insecticides on their lawns,” he said. “The finding that pesticides are widespread doesn’t really surprise me.”

He said he has no plans to test his water for pesticides.

“I’m just not that overly concerned about it,” he said.

This story is the result of a reporting partnership between WNPR and the Mirror. Click here for a radio version of the story.