Owen Tucker-Smith, Contributing Photographer

At Wednesday evening’s New Haven Environmental Advisory Council meeting, chairwoman Laura Cahn expressed frustration with the quantity of toxic chemicals in New Haven — from those creating the unpleasant odors in her neighborhood to the faint traces of pesticides in the water she drinks.

At the council meeting, Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority Director of Operations Gary Zrelak answered concerns over the city’s wastewater treatment programs. Cahn and other council members wanted more information about pesticides the Authority has found in wastewater. Several also said they were concerned with chemicals New Haven residents may have been exposed to through recent construction projects. 

Attendees continued on to discuss the broader implications of the amount of and transparency surrounding toxic chemicals in New Haven. One specific concern of those in attendance was a November pipe implantation project — a job that produced an hours-long stench on Central Avenue in the Westville neighborhood.

“It smelled like a bus station bathroom,” Cahn said. “We were given no notice. We need more close monitoring of private entities doing work on public thoroughfares and in places where residents are affected.”

According to Connecticut state law, cities cannot enforce any type of pesticide ban. Still, in 2017, the New Haven Board of Alders approved a resolution calling for a voluntary ban on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The voluntary ban calls on Elm City residents to make the decision to stop using these products, although city officials cannot enforce it by law.

The Water Pollution Control Authority does test wastewater for pesticides but rarely detects significant amounts, Zrelak said. According to him, part of this is because the water is significantly diluted by the time it reaches the facility. Zrelak said residents are not supposed to spray pesticides before it rains, when the water will wash the chemicals into sewers.

“There are some when it rains — I think they wash off the lawns,” he said. “But overall, pesticides are not a large issue in the wastewater treatment field. … These things are hard to determine at such a small level.”

But Cahn — and others at the meeting — remain concerned about pesticides in the city. On top of pesticides winding up at the wastewater facility, she said she worries about the introduction of pesticides into the municipal water system. She was able to obtain a sample of city data of municipal water pesticide tests, which she said included “too little [pesticide] to bother anyone.”

The numbers are nevertheless concerning, she said. The News obtained a spreadsheet that showed detectable concentrations of over 25 chemicals, including herbicides like glyphosate.

The National Pesticide Information Center guidelines state that “many contaminants of drinking water occur at very low concentrations.” The guidelines also note that when discussing pesticides, “the words ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’ are misleading. Any chemical, including any pesticide, can pose risks to people, pets, or the environment.”

“The fact that there are things like glyphosate in our water really scares me, even if they’re just little tiny bits,” Cahn said. “Those things do not belong in our drinking water in any amounts, and the fact that they get there means that people are using these things where they shouldn’t.”

For those like Cahn eager for data on pesticide contents, another obstacle is the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), which houses state pesticide records. 

The department has access to valuable information, Fairfield attorney and environmental advocate Tara Cook-Littman told the News. But the information can be hard to access. Cahn jokingly called the organization “Difficult DEEP” and said when she previously tried to contact them about a different issue she never received a reply. 

Besides concerns over DEEP’s transparency, some also worry about the agency’s record retention periods. Cahn has complained that there is a 10-year period in which the organization keeps records, after which they are often disposed of.

DEEP has previously responded to this criticism. In February 2020, DEEP spokeswoman Kristina Rozek wrote in an email to the New Haven Register that “the agency disposes of reports as it receives disposal authorization from the state library based on the established retention schedule. … The agency is not required, under state statute, to retain these records in perpetuity.”

Rozek also noted that DEEP is attempting to fix the paper filing problem, telling the Register that they are “strategically moving toward digitizing its estimated 7.5 million paper documents with a focus on making these records accessible to the public.”

Cook-Littman is another one of the Connecticutians eager to improve the monitoring of pesticide use. She led the country’s first GMO-labeling law in Connecticut eight years ago and has recently filed a public records request to access pesticide data. In an effort to pass a ban on chlorpyrifos, a controversial chemical banned in the European Union and several U.S. states but often used on Connecticut farms and golf courses, she filed a request and received data that showed pest companies sprayed over 758 gallons of the substance in Connecticut in 2019.

Cook-Littman plans to repeat the process with other pesticides to learn more about how they are used across the state and take more action against them. But in her way is a statewide ban on municipal enforceable pesticide regulations. She noted that voluntary bans like those in New Haven are not always effective.

“I don’t see that they get us very far, unfortunately,” she said. “With that said, the more we educate people about the dangers of pesticides, I would hope, the less pesticides will be used voluntarily.”

The NHEAC will next meet on March 3.

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu

Owen Tucker-Smith edits the City Desk and is the Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine. He previously covered the Mayor's Office. Originally from Western Massachusetts, Owen is a sophomore Statistics & Data Science major in Ezra Stiles College.