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Wisconsin fights modern farming's water-contaminating ways

farm chemicals October 7, 1996
Web posted at: 8:00 p.m. EDT

ARENA, Wisconsin (CNN) -- Farmers have been using weed killers and chemical fertilizers for years to help boost their crop production, but often those chemicals trickle into your drinking water. Wisconsin is taking steps to protect its water sources before it is too late.

Much of the state is covered by a sandy soil which is great for growing potatoes but doesn't retain moisture, so anything spread over a field quickly sinks down to the water table.


Researchers discovered that some chemicals percolate through the ground faster than others, which led to the nation's first comprehensive ground water law, and to a partial ban in Wisconsin on atrazine, one of the most commonly used weed killers in corn country. The state routinely checks well water samples for the chemical, and each year adds to the areas where it is banned.

"Public health is ... the bottom-line goal. Drinking water is so important to just human health, livestock, all the industries we run; that's our bottom line," said Nick Neher of Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture.

Nausea, diarrhea and shortness of breath in babies have been blamed on polluted water. So have many miscarriages. Environmental studies professor Warren Porter, also of the University of Wisconsin, is not surprised.

He studies the effects of impure water in pregnant rats. Under ideal conditions, where the rats are under no stress, some of his studies have showed that they can drink tainted water without any ill effects.

"But if we start taking some of the food away; only 80 percent of what they normally consume, give them a little flu-like infection, and then we give them the chemical, all of a sudden -- wow, things start to happen," he said.

Porter says real-life studies are revealing more and more about how even traces of chemical pollutants in the water threaten human health.

Alongside the dire reports is an explosion of research into environmentally safe farming, aiming to maintain the country's lead as bread basket to the world without destroying the nation's water.


Organic dairy farmer Carl Pulvermacher is taking both the reports and the research on safer farming methods to heart. He says he's cut out commercial farming's chemicals for his children and generations to come.

"I'm convinced that the type of farming that Americans, most Americans, are engaged in right now is short-lived," the farmer said.

"It just seems like, we're here a short time. I know I can make a profit farming this way. That's not a problem. 'Why wouldn't you do it this way?' is my question."

Correspondent Dan Rutz contributed to this report.

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