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Contaminants in Flood Waters Threaten Food Part I: Who is Watching?

Farming near a river bed is a great idea until it floods.  Soil near riverbeds tends to be more fertile, producing more abundant crops.  But when the river beds flood and drench contiguous farm land, the water can drag unwanted contaminants to the farmland, exposing health risks to anyone eating the crops from the flooded land.  What kinds of contaminants?  Anything in the flooded water: machine oil, sewage, garbage, medical waste, manure.

As a Midwesterner and a doctor with an interest in both public health and food, I really wanted to find out who in the federal government was monitoring food grown on flooded farms to make sure it stays safe, and then blog about it.  So far, I have not found the federal agency responsible for monitoring the safety of food grown on flooded farms.  I checked first with the Centers for Disease Control, but the spokesperson there said they only monitored disease outbreaks after they had started occurring.  She suggested I call the Environmental Protection Agency.  The woman I spoke with in media relations at the EPA here in Chicago also said that her agency was not responsible for food safety, only environmental toxins (I kind of thought they were linked), and suggested I call the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Now FEMA has gotten a bum rap since they kind of forgot to rescue tens of thousands of people in New Orleans when that city floodedin 2005, so I decided to give the agency a break and not push too hard.  I asked a FEMA spokesperson in Wisconsin about food safety, one of the states hit hard by flooding and she set me straight: “We normally don’t even deal with that issue.”

So now I am asking you, dear Planetsave reader:  Can you help me learn who is keeping our food supply safe?  Please contact me with your suggestions in the comment section.

Photo thanks to Shannonpatrick17 at flickr.com.




14 comments
  1. Robert Lovinger

    Flooding & its effects is ancient. The Nile was the lifeblood of Egypt & preserved it from the desert. This is famously expressed in the Joseph story in Genesis, where Joseph interprets Pharoah’s dream of 7 fat cows coming up out of the river & then being devoured by 7 lean cows that ate the fat cows (no bull) as predicting 7 good years followed by 7 years of famine. Whatever went into or lived in the Nile is nothing like what we provide with modern chemicals. What agency should be consulted? I suggest The White House with a new occupant. You get 3 guesses as to my recommendation for this post as he will install the next EPA administrator.

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  3. Sarah Lovinger

    Thanks everyone for all of your comments and suggestions. I have contacted the FDA, but I have not heard back yet. I will update you when I learn more.

  4. Leslie

    Please give us an update on this if you learn anything (and get beyond the usual run-around). My assumption was that these crops would be lost — but then I was assuming that there would be government oversight and enforced guidelines. How naive of me!

  5. Leslie

    Please give us an update on this one if you learn anything. My assumption was that these crops would be lost — but then I was assuming that there would be government oversight. How naive of me!

  6. Sophie Lovinger

    The sad story is that no one is watching or even caring about the safety of our food supply. We have seen that over and over again. Maybe a grassroots effort in this area is needed?

  7. Shannon Patrick

    Here are some links that might be helpful:

    Flood Fears: E. coli, tetanus, West Nile virus, parasites that could be in the water, such as giardia or cryptosporidosis, Hazardous materials crews were called to Black Hawk Park in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Wednesday after it was discovered that about 15 gallons of 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid — or 245-T, a powerful herbicide commonly found in the defoliant Agent Orange.
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25287816

    Amazing and heartbreaking photos from the Boston Globe.
    http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2008/06/mississippi_floodwaters_in_iow.html

    Flood victims worry: What’s in the water?
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25198134/from/RSS/

    June 2008 Midwest floods
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/June_2008_Midwest_floods

    This site saveiowa.org has extensive links to news, resources and information about disaster assistance:
    http://saveiowa.org/iowa-flood-news/

    I have been seeing news about the Red Cross all around the web: Spate of disasters empties Red Cross coffers
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20080617/ts_alt_afp/usweatherdisasterreliefredcross
    http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/06/20/redcross.money/

    USA: Announcing Project Cedar Rapids
    Hands On Disaster Response
    (great photo gallery on flickr)
    http://www.hodr.org/index.php/2008/06/23/usa-announcing-project-cedar-rapids/

    I liked your article and your “let’s all get involved in this” spirit. I’m glad you used my photo.
    Thanks -Shannon

  8. Beverly Stewart

    Did you try the Food and Drug Administration? As an aside, most of these agencies have been gutted so that government regulation of safety and consumer protections will not interfere with business.

    It matters who is elected.

  9. Paula Fuqua

    This is scary. I wonder if the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) might have some info, or get involved in pushing for some oversight. They are the people who publish the Nutrition Action Newsletter. Also Consumer Union (Consumer Reports) might want to get active about this. PF

  10. Sharon

    Hi Sarah,

    USDA deals with all food safety issues–surely in that bureaucracy there is someone who deals with flooded farmland! I did see a piece on TV about this recently, but can’t remember what show. It featured a Vietnames farmer in NOLA, perhaps, who had relied on river water for some basic farming and now couldn’t because it was contaminated, so there is a small amount of coverage being done on this topic.

    Thanks for pursuing it.

    Sharon

  11. Sara

    Great point. I think an additional concern in toxins from farmlands (fertilizers, drugs from animal waste) entering the rivers, once floods subside!

    I’d contact the Dept. of Agriculture!

    S.

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