California Crops May Have Been Irrigated with Toxic Wastewater for 30 Years

california crops
Agricultural irrigation system watering corn field on sunny summer day.

Nearly 100,000 acres of California crops may have been irrigated with toxic wastewater over the past three decades, according to an Environmental Working Group analysis of state data.

Oil companies reported more than 20 million pounds of toxic chemicals in the wastewater sold to Kern County irrigation districts since 2014, though the County has irrigated with this wastewater for over three decades. The data showed that billions of gallons of oil field wastewater have been used to irrigate numerous California crops.

Sixteen chemicals that the state classifies as carcinogens or reproductive toxins were found to be present in the water, but many of the other dozens of chemicals remain a mystery.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board refuses to halt the practice of irrigating with this wastewater until an expert panel returns findings about the safety of consuming produce grown with the contaminated water.

The next public meeting of the panel is this Friday in Rancho Cardova, Calif., and will feature presentations by the California certified Organic Farmers, the California Independent Petroleum Association, and the Cawelo Water District.

The panel’s findings are sure to be hindered by the fact that oil companies can continue to hide the names of certain chemicals in the name of trade secrecy.

“A full assessment is impossible because companies withheld the identity of almost 40 percent of the chemicals as so-called trade secrets,” writes the EWG.

Consultants hired by one Kern County irrigation district deemed some products safe, including citrus and almonds, but the studies were poorly designed and too short-term to be viable, according to the EWG.

In spite of this news, the EWG does not recommend that people stop eating produce from California. While it is established that pollutants in soil and water can build up in crops, scientists do not yet know if this can pose a health risk for people who eat the food.

“A healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables outweighs uncertainties about chemicals in produce,” writes the EWG. Information from the Produce for Better Health Foundation supports this stance as well.

California crops include two thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts and one third of its vegetables.

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco