The Pan American Health Organization has issued a clean bill of health to the 14.5-acre Powell family farm in Frank Sound, declaring arsenic levels in soil and groundwater within acceptable limits.
“The findings suggest that there are no significant differences between the [arsenic] content of soils from the test site and control/background sites,” the executive summary of a 35-page report noted.
The 14 contributors to the report four from PAHO and 10 from its Jamaican affiliate, the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences: cautioned, however, that “the number of background location samples analyzed was below the number needed for statistical analysis.
“The examination revealed that none of the persons showed symptoms and/or signs of chronic exposure to arsenic such as enlarged liver or spleen, ascites, pedal oedema, Mee’s lines, hyperpigmentation or keratosis of the skin,” the report said.
“Some persons had chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. It was also noted that some individuals were chronic cigarette smokers.”
“The results of the clinical examination and the environmental analysis revealed that the situation does not warrant an alarm this time. Clinical exams indicate that arsenic exposure effects are likely not occurring among the study population. The health of the residents doesn’t seem to have been affected,” the report said.
In a technical explanation, the authors said “approximately 73 percent of the water samples analyzed were below the limit of detection of 10μg/L, which is also the maximum contaminant level for [arsenic] for the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
“The food samples,” the team wrote, “ranged from 0.08 to 5.63μg/g (median, 0.25μg/g, and mean, 0.76μg/g).”
Approximately 73 percent of those samples fell below the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s lower regulatory limit, while those above FDA limits, the report said, were from plants with special “hyperaccumulators” of the contaminant. A hyperaccumulator is a plant capable of growing in soils with high concentrations of metals, absorbing them through their roots and concentrating them in their tissues.
PAHO and ICENS conducted a weeklong study of the farm starting July 10, after a request from Cayman Cabinet Secretary Samuel Rose and the then-Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kiran Kumar.
The pair was acting on two reports, one shortly after Hurricane Ivan in 2006, and one in 2014 – although released only in 2015. Both of the reports by the Water Authority at the request of the Powell family found elevated levels of arsenic contamination in the soil and groundwater, measured in a domestic well, and trace amounts of chromium, lead and benzene.
The contamination came in the wake of 2005’s incineration on the farm, with the approval of owner Charles Powell, of plywood infused with the contaminant, which retards rotting in wet weather. The burning produced toxic ash, which was stored in both a pit and in piles randomly placed around the farmland.
The U.S. departments of health and environment have long-standing warnings that infused plywood should never be incinerated.
PAHO and ICENS drilled 45 holes and tested soil, groundwater, fruit, grass and dead animals to determine the depth and width of contamination, while sampling hair and fingernail fragments from 25 people on and near the farm, which features several family homes and two apartment blocks.
The 25, according to the report, comprised 11 males and 14 females, ranging in age from 3 and 66 years old.
Test results had been due originally in August, but were delayed until Oct. 3, when Charles Powell’s son, Chad, said PAHO had given him the conclusions.
“The good news is that we are certainly assured we are all apparently OK, although there is one individual who is sitting on the borderline,” displaying arsenic levels just above World Health Organization limits.
“We still do not know who that is,” Chad Powell said, “and there are still elevated levels on the property.”
No one, had spoken to him about remediation, he said, “so PAHO and ICENS are talking to us.”
Cabinet Secretary Rose had asked his opinion, Chad Powell said.
“I told him it was too early to make any pre-judgments about everything in that report. For now, we are just looking for clarification about the things in there.”
In a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Mr. Rose said the report was only the first, accounting for the welfare of the families. A second report in mid-December will detail environmental conditions, although little is expected to change from this initial document.
“We gave first priority to the biological concerns, the families,” he said. “There are no concerns about their health, but we are not going to abandon them. The Department of Environmental Health will be recovering debris from the site.” The report concluded that “arsenic is a natural component of the Earth’s crust, and is widely distributed throughout the environment in the air, water and land. It is therefore important to note that persons may become exposed to arsenic through consumption of food (including certain types of rice) and water, industrial processes and tobacco smoking.”
Chad Powell noted that the report recommended annual testing for all parties, “just to keep that in perspective, that there are still signs of danger.”
PAHO and ICENS recommended “annual clinical exams targeting potential medium-term health effects, including cancers, neuropathy and other effects that can be potentially associated with arsenic exposures, but also to assess other risk factors, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, etc.”
In remediation, the organization said “a suitable course of action may be” to remove the soil, storing it in a landfill; use iron oxide filters for well water; and refrain from using groundwater for irrigation, as “some plants (lemongrass and lime) have been shown to accumulate [arsenic] above the limit permissible in foods,” and because “it is difficult to mitigate against the metal content of plants that bioaccumulate these components.”