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Science and Innovations

In Arizona Mining Town, Gardeners and Scientists Team Up to Check for Contamination

Melissa Sevigny

It’s harvest season and gardeners in Arizona are roasting homegrown squash and canning extra tomatoes. But how do they know their vegetables are safe to eat? It’s a worry in some small mining towns with a legacy of contamination. In central Arizona, local gardeners have teamed up with scientists to test their soil and rainwater. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.

It’s been a tough year for Dale Bennett. A wildfire nearly burned down his house in Mayer, tucked into the desert hills of central Arizona. He says the whole place was black with ash, “and whatever’s in that red retardant, cause this whole place got hit with the slurry bomber when they came through.”

Bennett collects rainwater off his roof in a big plastic barrel to water his garden. He’s not too worried about the Superfund site 10 miles away, where an old mine left elevated levels of arsenic and lead. But the wildfire—and the floods that followed—made him wonder: is the rainwater really safe?

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Water harvesting system

“It grows good gourds, and probably grow great big carrots and anything like that, but should you eat ‘em? That’s a whole different story,” he says.

This year, he didn’t plant any vegetables—just gourds to carve into artwork. Enormous gourds. Each one is 20 or 30 pounds. Bennett is convinced something in the rainwater made them extra big. “What it is, if it’s good, bad, who knows, but there’s obviously something in it.”

Credit Melissa Sevigny

He signed up for Project Harvest to answer that question. It's a community-driven research project to check for contaminants in garden soil, harvested rainwater, and vegetables. On sample collection day, Margaret Dewey drove from the neighboring town of Dewey-Humboldt to help Bennett.

Dewey is the local health promotor or “promotora.” She says Project Harvest was inspired by community concerns about the Superfund site in Dewey-Humboldt, just a few miles from her house. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the site, but cleanup hasn’t started yet.

She says, “I think my fruits and edible plants are better than what I get in the grocery store no matter what, but it’ll be nice to know whether or not there is anything coming out of the sky or off my roof that I need to be careful of.”

Half of the participants get do-it-yourself kits to test for arsenic and harmful bacteria. The other half, including Bennett, send samples to a laboratory in Tucson for more detailed tests.

Bennet pulls on a pair of sterile gloves while Dewey reads from the instruction manual, explaining the color-coded labels for organic and inorganic samples. Bennett fills several glass vials with water from his rain barrel. He’ll repeat the process four times a year, at the beginning and end of each rainy season. Next he stakes out a plot in his garden and shovels up a bucketful of soil.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Collecting a soil sample

Dewey will send the samples to a laboratory at University of Arizona, where chemists and biologists will check for heavy metals, pesticides, and E. coli. Participants get their results back at the end of the year.

Environmental health scientist Monica Ramirez-Andreotta is the lead investigator. She says, “I’m very much about democratizing science. I believe that with environmental health challenges, you have to go where the people are at and talk to them.”

Ramirez-Andreotta wants to build trust between scientists like herself and communities like Dewey-Humboldt. But she also believes everyone is a scientist. People who live in potentially contaminated areas can find the answers themselves and take control of their own health.

She says, “We live in a time now where your zip code could be more important than your genetic code. Where you live and your environmental health exposures are playing a larger role in our environmental health outcomes than we ever thought they would.”

The five year project is funded by the National Science Foundation and ends in 2021.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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