Backyard poisons?

  • Amanda Ryder’s sons, Eric, age 10 (left) and Christopher, age 12, play in their backyard, where arsenic concentrations exceed levels deemed safe by the EPA and by the state of Washington.

    Kirsten J. Cox

This is a sidebar to the feature story, Pesticides from Old Farmland Leave Toxic Legacy.

Amanda Ryder and her family live two blocks from Robertson Elementary, one of many Yakima schools that required cleanup due to the high levels of lead and arsenic in its soil. The orchard that contaminated the school's playground once extended across Ryder's backyard, where she now grows vegetables and her sons play in their homemade fort: a dirt hole covered with plywood. Ryder has worried that her family's soil might be tainted, but other expenses have taken precedence over testing.

So HCN decided to help Ryder as well as Tara Compton, whose family plans to build a home on land where another Yakima orchard stood in the 1980s. At Ryder's house, which was built in the 1940s, I used a trowel to collect one cup of dirt from the top eight inches of soil in the vegetable garden, another from the fort, and a final sample from beneath a swing set. Using the same methods, I collected samples from five places on the vacant lot where Compton's family will soon build a house -- including one near an empty, rusty barrel, its former contents unknown, another by a peach tree, and another from the spot that Tara Compton turned into a garden plot this past summer.

Apex Laboratories in Portland, Ore., created a composite for each yard before testing, mixing together pinches of dirt from each sample, as is standard in the industry. Below are the results along with the levels deemed safe by various state and federal agencies. If exposure occurs above those levels, officials say there is increased risk of getting sick.

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