SI Vault
Virginia Kraft
November 18, 1963
Contrary to the dire prophecies of Rachel Carson's best-selling 'Silent Spring,' pesticides like those being dusted over the California farm below have helped produce the nation's healthiest wildlife crop in many decades
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November 18, 1963

The Life-giving Spray

Contrary to the dire prophecies of Rachel Carson's best-selling 'Silent Spring,' pesticides like those being dusted over the California farm below have helped produce the nation's healthiest wildlife crop in many decades

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The most striking contradiction of all has been uncovered by American hunters in the course of the current fall. With the general season half over, outdoorsmen have been able to choose from the richest, most varied bag in years: 17 species of big game and 24 species of small game. No hunting seasons anywhere have been forced shut or even curtailed because of pesticide losses, nor could any state point to overall game reductions that could be blamed on pesticides.

Seasons are, in fact, longer and more liberal in a number of states than they have been for years. In Texas, where recent rumblings of pesticide-poisoned quail have been heard, game wardens report that "hunters have looked for and found more birds than last year," and wildlife officials are talking about extending the season. Elsewhere, the wild turkey, once nearly extinct and closed to hunting over much of its original range in the early '40s when pesticides first came into widespread use, can be hunted today in 26 states. Ruffed grouse are peaking in much of their range. New population explosions are reported among Midwestern rabbits. Louisiana's deer herds are growing so fast in prime cotton country, where heavy spraying occurs, that the chief problem is finding enough hunters to harvest them. And Washington game protectors are complaining about deer increases that keep the wardens up nights chasing the animals away from the farmers' well-sprayed fruit trees.

This prosperity in the wildlife of today is a direct result of man's—particularly American man's—increased ability to control his own environment. The U.S. produces the most varied and abundant food supply in the world, the richest forests, the finest and healthiest livestock. Cropland and pasture grow game as well as grain and livestock; skillfully managed timber and grazing lands provide the game with new and improved range and cover. The single most effective tool in bringing about these improvements has been chemical pesticides.

At the conclusion of its recent investigation, the President's science advisory board reported: "Few recent developments have been so effective or have had application in such a wide range of human endeavor as the pesticide chemicals." Without them, it has been estimated that we would lose in this country alone more than 30% of our protein supply, more than 80% of our high-vitamin crops, the production of more than a million farm workers.

Even in heavily sprayed regions, insects, rodents, weeds and various plant diseases remain formidable competitors for food to both man and the game he hunts. For example, John E. Casida, University of Wisconsin entomologist, estimates that rats eat as much in this country each year as 10,000,000 people. Plant diseases cost $3 billion annually, weeds, $4 billion. Fever-carrying ticks and grubs double and triple the cost of animal protein in areas where they go unchecked. In the forests, insects either kill outright or prevent the growth of more than 25 billion board feet of timber each year. "Rachel Carson warns of a silent spring," says Bert Cole, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands. "The spring can be just as silent without the use of insecticides if our forests are destroyed."

Quite apart from wildlife, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 100 million illnesses have been prevented by the chemical control of insects (such as malaria-carrying mosquitoes). DDT alone is credited with saving more than five million U.S. lives. "Pesticides have freed man," said the President's committee, "from communicable diseases to an unprecedented extent."

Unquestionably, pesticides have "changed the very nature of the world." They have made it a better place for both man and wildlife to live. However, there is no doubt that in certain instances fish, game and even people have been killed by pesticides. Each year, between 85 and 150 people die from pesticide poisoning. Some are suicides who deliberately eat or drink the poison. But more than half the victims are children, who innocently taste household bug-and weed-killers, carelessly left where youngsters can get at them. On the containers of these pesticides are specific warnings to keep them away from children, but, says Wallace G. Klaussman of Texas A&M, "One of the primary problems is the failure of the public in general to follow the labels." Many of the labels also say to immediately wash any skin area on which a pesticide is accidentally sprayed or spilled—but people ignore these warnings and each year a few die as they ingest the poison through their flesh. Still, total pesticide deaths in the U.S. during the past year were substantially below fatalities from aspirin (200), though they approached the lethal proportion's of bee stings (150).

As for wildlife casualties from pesticides, some of them have been caused directly by spraying, others by careless handling of the poisons before or after spraying—and the vast majority of them by misuse rather than by use alone. In Maine, where 26 deer were found dead near fields sprayed for potato control and fish vanished from a stream in the same area, cans of insecticide used in the spraying had been carelessly discarded when the job was done. The cans were left open, and what was left in them spilled through a bridge, contaminating the stream below. In the celebrated Sebago Lake situation, airplanes sprayed DDT along the lake shore to control mosquitoes and black flies. Since landlocked salmon like to move in shallow water, there is a strong possibility—though the most recent research indicates no provable conclusion—that the Sebago fish were directly contaminated by the aerial spray. If this turns out to be so, then, says Robert E. Moore of the State of Maine Executive Council, the solution is not to stop spraying altogether, but to eliminate aerial spraying within 300 feet of all Maine lakes, rivers and brooks, using trucks instead to treat areas close to water. Strict limitations on aerial spraying in other states have dramatically reduced pesticide accidents, and Moore expects to see similar legislation introduced at the next session in Maine.

Chicot and Grand lakes, two popular crappie fishing spots in southeast Arkansas, suffered fish losses at the same time that local cotton fields were being sprayed. But it turned out the fish-kill was not due to the actual spraying operation; rather, the crop-dusting pilots, in an effort to clean their spray-coated planes after the dusting operation was finished, dipped their wheels into the lake. This daring maneuver splashed the pesticides off their planes, all right, but left a residue of fish-killing poison in the water.

In New England, as part of the long, losing battle against Dutch Elm disease, the trees in one Massachusetts area were carefully and safely sprayed. Through an error, another group of tree sprayers moved into the same area and unwittingly resprayed it. The result was an excessive concentration of pesticides that took the lives of a number of robins.

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