Two health and science teams arrived in Cayman on Wednesday, spending two days testing at least two dozen people in the Frank Sound area for arsenic poisoning, and measuring ground and water contamination.
The results won’t be known for a month, however, while government seeks to allay frustrations and cool passions at the 14.5-acre Frank Sound farm, in the wake of revelations that the land – and possibly well water – has been infected with soaring levels of arsenic after a decade of storage of ash from the burning of contaminated pressure-treated wood. The teams, brought in by both Cabinet Secretary Samuel Rose and the recently retired Medical Officer of Health Kiran Kumar, are from the Jamaica-based International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences, and from the Cayman Islands office, also based in Jamaica, of the Pan American Health Organization.
“The team from PAHO will look at the people, test some of the individuals in proximity,” to the property, said Mr. Rose. “The team from ICENS will do soil sampling” and probe groundwater.
“No one knows about the outcome,” he said. Test materials and samples would be sent to Jamaica, he said, and results were likely to take a month.
The inspection teams are expected to return in the coming weeks to continue environmental testing and collect additional samples, according to the Public Health Department.
The farm is owned by Charles Powell, former Fire Services chief, who has long held the property near to Frank Sound’s 850-student Clifton Hunter High School.
Mr. Powell says he is miserable, “very depressed and very sad” at a decade of futile efforts to gain recognition of the problem that has infected not only his own acreage, but several adjacent properties, including those belonging to his brother Tony Powell and two other unnamed families.
Mr. Rose said that “not a large number of individuals” were affected by the arsenic contamination, but Charles Powell said he feared for the health of 21 members of his own family.
His brother Tony Powell, a farmer and owner of the South Coast Bar and Grill in Breakers, owns at least 20 livestock. He said he lost three cows and two horses in the last two months, although he declined to link the deaths to elevated arsenic levels.
“I asked for a toxicology report by the Department of Agriculture,” Tony Powell said, “but they asked for $700.” He declined to pay and has since burnt the carcasses.
“Some weird things are going on up there, and some real suffering,” he said.
Mr. Rose acknowledged the animal deaths, but warned against “getting ahead of the science,” advising people to await the Jamaica teams’ analyses. “There are not, for example,” he said, “dead chickens and iguanas lying around.”
“We have a good understanding of the levels of arsenic,” he said, and was working with the Department of the Environment, the Department of Environmental Health, the Health Services Authority, the Water Authority and the two international organizations to address the problem.
“We’re working carefully with the families. We want to know the real risks. That is why we’re putting in experts in various fields.”
The problem, Mr. Rose said, had “not come up overnight,” but was at least a decade old, rooted in the aftermath of 2004’s Hurricane Ivan. A May 2014 Water Authority report detailed the problem, a result of post-storm incineration of treated pressboard, imported from the U.S. to aid repair efforts. Government had halted the use of this type of board after learning it had been treated with chromated copper arsenate, used to prevent rotting due to insects and wet weather.
The board was burned and buried in scattered locations – Mr. Powell’s farm and a small quarry on the property chief among them. In 2006, however, concerned about leaching of chemicals in the soil, he approached the Water Authority.
The 2014 Water Authority report was not made public until January this year, for the first time informing the Powells of the arsenic contamination.
“We’ve been fighting this for 10 years,” said Charlie Powell’s son, Chad Powell, “but were not privileged to learn of the arsenic until recently. Now we are reaching out to try to make some plans.”
“Everybody is taking this cautiously,” he said of possible health effects. “We can’t really relate anything directly to what is going on, and I don’t want to make any remarks ahead of time.”
The U.S. banned chromated copper arsenate-treated wood, used in residential housing, in 2003, but acknowledged it “could be found virtually anywhere outdoor lumber is being used,” according to the National Center for Healthy Housing, a Maryland-based nonprofit organization.
Exposure to arsenic, the center says, “can cause cancer of the lung, bladder, skin, kidney, prostate, and nasal passage. [It] can also lead to nerve damage, dizziness, and numbness … ”
Children can ingest arsenic “through normal hand-to-mouth behavior,” while the chemical can leach into the ground surrounding the location of the treated wood.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is adamant: “Clean up all sawdust, scraps, and other construction debris thoroughly,” it warns, concluding in boldface: “CCA-treated wood should not be chipped into mulch or burned in fireplaces, stoves, outdoor wood-fired boilers or open fires.”
Charlie Powell says his children and grandchildren are at risk, while his plans for their future are in tatters. “I built two apartment complexes next door and I can’t rent them. The Water Authority says they’re of no use.
“It’s my life savings, for my children and grandchildren, and now it’s gone. There’s nothing.”
Water Resources Engineer at the Water Authority Hendrick-Jan van Genderen said the PAHO and ICENS teams needed time to weigh the problem.
“The level of contamination and affected area will be determined by further environmental investigation,” he said, cautioning, however, that “groundwater at the property should not be used for potable purposes.” Both he and Mr. Rose declined to comment on any threat to Clifton Hunter High School, saying only that “the environmental investigation focuses on the conditions at the debris site and nearby properties. Based on what we find, it may be expanded further.”
The Ministry of Education did not respond to questions by press time while Clifton Hunter Deputy Principal Steve Clark declined to comment, saying he was unaware of the problem.
Meanwhile, Washington’s Environmental Protection Agency is similarly cautious about arsenic contamination, which occurs naturally in limited quantities: “Studies have shown that CCA-treated lumber does leach chromium, copper and arsenic into the surrounding soil. The migration of these elements appears to be limited. In addition, research has not clearly shown a long-term negative impact upon plants or animals.”
“We are trying to keep cool and calm,” said Chad Powell. “It’s been especially stressful for my dad, but we have an action plan and are minimizing the risks of exposure. We are happy that the Water Authority has brought this forward and that Mr. Rose is helping.”