Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – part 2

Following on from part 1 in a series of summarised points about pesticide use presented in Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring.

Rivers of death

Fish and their migration patterns are often disturbed as a result of aerial spraying or runoff from farms, due to several reasons:

  1. Their food stocks (particularly insects for salmon) are killed off, perhaps not necessarily intentionally as they may not be the target insect. These food stocks often take years to rebuild, exacting long term effects on the fish and the other organisms that the affected animals interact with.
  2. The chemicals get into the water, causing the fish themselves to die or become ill or blind as a result of direct chemical exposure.

The reduction of the fish supply affects not only the sport of fishing (as the dead fish are usually unfit for human consumption) but the livelihoods of many populations who depend on fish for their income or need the fish as a key source of protein for where they live.

Many specific kinds of fish have adapted to certain areas over many years and thus their eradication leads to the complete extinction of whole species.

Those chemicals that are washed off by rain are often used repeatedly by farmers to protect certain crops, and these repeated sprayings lead to increased concentrations of chemicals in the water, through runoff.

Some chemicals stay in the water even after extensive flushing and draining, as they can become absorbed into the mud of the bottom of ponds for example.

The manufacturing of pesticides also entails pumping large amounts of chemical waste into nearby waterways that may surround the producing factories. Such disposal is often commonplace and perfectly legal.

Attempts at re-stocking fish after such chemical spraying must often be payed for by the state (ie, taxpayers). Moreover, it is often the state that funds such spraying in the first place.

The chemical-induced death extends not only to fish – it also extends to those animals who eat the dead or dying creatures, and poison them, too. At sea for example, these predators include birds, and they perform important ecological functions on the seaside landscape.

In almost all cases of widespread death of a certain species of fish, for example, it is clear the cause is from pesticide use, rather than disease. This fact is confirmed not only through tests which reveal the animals have no disease, but the behaviour of the sick animals and presence of the chemicals in the relevant tissues of the animals. Furthermore, populations that live side by side can be used for reference – unsprayed areas for example exhibit far less, if any, population decrease, than sprayed areas.

Even low concentrations of pesticides can cause harm to animals who have less tolerance than the intended target species. For example, while insecticide use is sometimes measured in parts per million, shrimp are tolerant of pesticides below levels of parts per billion.

Herbicide runoff from roads further endangers the life of plankton, which threatens the lives of many creatures that feed on it and in turn, those creatures’ predators.

While some animals such as mollusks can survive some chemical exposure, they still store (and concentrate) the chemicals in their organs and tissues, which is particularly alarming if they are meant for human consumption.

In their long periods of transit, the toxicity of these discharged chemicals changes, and there is no predicting whether they will become more or less toxic. Funds for research in these areas have been consistently low, yet extensive research is needed to determine the consequences of pesticides’ interaction with other chemicals in the water and natural environment. Despite the lack of funding for this, vast sums are spent on research developing the pesticides in question.

Indiscriminately from the skies

While many insects that have become the targets of spraying have posed few problems (both financially and for the average citizen), aerial sprays indiscriminately administer pesticides wherever the planes fly over. Citizens have little to no say over whether they wish to be sprayed.

Much of the negative effects of targeted insects has been hugely exaggerated, as has been the response. Sometimes, sprays are used in a preventative manner, before the targeted insect even becomes a nuisance. Other times, spraying is conducted even after successful attempts have been made to control the populations of the target insect through more natural controls (such as the introduction of specific parasites and predators). Often local complaints on behalf of citizens and conservationists have been ignored in such cases. Furthermore, even when it is clear certain kinds of insects will not pose a problem to populations in cities for example, spraying is conducted there nonetheless. Finally, some insects have been targeted that aren’t even at the top of local lists that prioritize certain insects’ elimination.

Those who recognise the toxicity of pesticides about to be aerially sprayed and specifically request their property not to be sprayed, while also promising to take care of the target pest on their own budget, are often ignored. The sprays cause damage to crops or livestock and render the produce either unusable or sold at reduced prices.

When contracts for aerial spraying are awarded to private companies (which they often are), the companies themselves can often be untraceable, so in the case of damages caused by spraying, it can be difficult to find those responsible. This can happen even when there is a legal obligation for the spraying company to register with state officials.

Huge publicity campaigns have been undertaken by the USDA to first exaggerate the threat of a particular insect (Carson uses the example of the fire ant), which contradict with views expressed in its own publications and the studies of scientists who researched (in field studies AND lab studies) the insect in the town it was most prevalent in. The fire ant specifically was noted for its importance as a predator for other more threatening insects. The mounds that it built also helped the soil by aerating it. However, despite its ecological importance, established by University departments and experts, the campaign (substantiated by conversations with farmers and older research) raged on. Though the ant is known to deliver a painful sting, the number of deaths by bee or wasp sting outnumber the deaths by fire ant sting by 33 to 1. Meanwhile, trade journals were celebrating the “sales bonanza” that pesticide makers experienced.

As well as being exposed to aerial sprays, citizens are likely to consume more pesticides via animal products (dairy and milk products) and other vegetables that are inadvertently sprayed. The effects of the combination of farmer’s sprays and other sprays mandated by local governments is unknown.

The fact that many pesticides make it through to animal products for human consumption is particularly worrying when the pesticide is known to increase in toxicity or concentration once it spends a certain amount of time in an animal.

Much aerial spraying is expensive, damaging, and yet, the least effective in controlling the intended pest. Despite this it was repeatedly used when cheaper, more effective, and less damaging methods were known and used before.

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1 Comment

Filed under Ecology

One response to “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – part 2

  1. Pingback: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – Part 3 « Fix

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