Poisons can linger in the ecosystem decades after they were last applied

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The rolling hills of Connecticut were once home to tens of thousands of fruit orchards – 47,000 by the 1930s. Anyone who has ever grown fruit trees, like apples, knows that insects love fruit as much as humans, and until the 1950s orchards were heavily fortified with lead arsenate-based pesticides to keep the bugs at bay – chemicals that were eventually banned because of their potential for harmful effects on humans.

And even though it has been more than half a century since the last lead arsenate pesticide was used to dowse Connecticut fruit trees, those poisons are not going away anytime soon.Many of those orchards have long since been converted into residential or commercial property, but new research from UConn and Eastern Connecticut State University researchers finds a strong correlation between arsenic contamination and proximity to those historic orchards — the closer the well is to those locations, the greater the likelihood of finding arsenic there. Their research was published in The Journal of Environmental Quality.

Gary Robbins, UConn professor of geosciences and natural resources, explains the project started with a request from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) in 2013. Robbins and his research group, including Mark Higgins ’21 Ph.D. and Meredith Metcalf ’13 Ph.D., study groundwater contamination and work to trace the source of contaminants.

Robbins, working with Metcalf – now an associate professor at ESCU – says they were asked to survey wells for arsenic in eastern Connecticut starting in Lebanon. Metcalf spearheaded the project and was able to collect water samples from hundreds of homes around the eastern half of the state, many of which served as the starting point for Higgins’ Ph.D. dissertation research involving the analysis of over 100 wells and 189 orchards, including soil samples to determine the presence of lead and arsenic.

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