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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Ducks, stopping on their annual migrations at three lakes north of Denver, unaccountably began dying in large numbers. Smaller counts of dead pheasants, songbirds, muskrats, rabbits and frogs were noted around the same lakes. Investigation revealed that a nearby insecticide plant was using the three lakes for cooling water used in their manufacturing process. Chemicals leaking into the cooling system were suspected of contaminating the lakes and killing the wildlife.

In Michigan last year some 80,000 acres were sprayed by plane against beetles. The offending beetles were wiped out, but so were a lot of sparrows and field mice. Agricultural department and conservation people got together on the problem, and this year spraying was done from the ground. The method is slower and more costly, but bird and animal losses were eliminated.

Despite this careful surveillance and quick corrective action, Dr. Justin Leonard of the Michigan Conservation Department says, "We are buried in complaints every time the agricultural people spray. Somebody always mounds all the sparrows into a pile and takes a picture. Then they send it to the governor and ask what the hell the state is going to do about it. Frankly, I don't think it makes too much difference. We lose more ducks to botulism than to pesticides."

Most wildlife men agree. J. Burton Lauckhart, chief of Washington's game management division, points out, "We can detect no overall, direct, immediately depressing effect of sprays on any population of game birds or game animals in this state at this time."

Nevertheless, the drumfire of protest continues to be loud and, generally, not well aimed. The most notable case occurred last year near Richvale, Calif, in the heart of the rice-growing country. As part of a study on pesticides by the California Fish and Game Department, 30 pheasants were shot from the flooded delta area. Two of them revealed concentrations of DDT well above the limits considered safe for human consumption. Secretary of the Interior Udall heard about the toxicity in these two birds and, on the basis of it, he forecast the doom of California pheasants (not to mention the people who might eat such contaminated birds). His subsequent announcement about the "thousands of acres of prime wildlife habitat" that might have to be closed to future hunting so alarmed the nation that otherwise knowledgeable game management officials from Florida to Washington, while stressing that their own states are in no danger, still cite California as a pesticides disaster area.

Fortunately, health, agriculture and conservation authorities in California were less willing to go along with Udall's conclusions. They decided to undertake another study based on something more than two birds. Pheasants from 11 control areas covering every portion of the state were analyzed by the Department of Public Health at Berkeley. Out of these birds, 89% proved to be well below the safe toxic level (7 parts per million). But contaminated birds did turn up—again near Richvale. And no wonder. Rice fields in this area were being seeded from the air with rice kernels saturated with pesticide. Frequently, the pilots overran their targets and dumped part of the toxic rice in canals, dikes and levees, instead of in the rice fields. As a result, heavy concentrations of pesticides accumulated in these sectors, contaminating pheasants feeding there.

The practice of saturating seeds was immediately abolished. Rice today is still sown by air, but pesticides are applied afterward from ground level. Recent counts made at Berkeley indicate that toxicity levels of pheasants from Richvale, while still higher than those of the birds elsewhere in the state, have dropped below the danger level. The Health Department announced this week that "the toxic content of birds examined indicates that they can be safely brought to the table." And the fish and game department added, "No warning signs will be posted for hunters because none are necessary."

Secondhand scare stories, like Udall's Case of the California Pheasants, have done nothing to enhance the reputation of the pesticide industry. Neither, for that matter, have reports of the industry's profits. Last year some 350 million pounds of insecticides were used in the U.S.; herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides and other specialty pesticides accounted for another 200 million pounds. Sales at the consumer level went above one billion dollars and that, on anybody's books, is big business. Now, there is something about big-business profits that seems to make many scientists nervous. Miss Carson, for one, has charged that "we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife and man himself" in order that the pesticide industry might "make a dollar at whatever cost."

Last year the beleaguered pesticide industry, which employs 1,300 professional scientists, spent $33 million on research, a fair portion of it to find out what will make pesticides safer. The industry was so conscientious that, until the recent Thalidomide tragedy, it was often easier to put a new drug for human consumption on the market than to register a new pesticide. Every new pesticide compound is carried through laboratory and field tests that may entail bio-assays on as many as 62 different animals and plants and from five to eight years of study. Out of every 1,800 compounds tested, an average of only one compound meets all the required standards. By the time it is ready to be marketed, it will have cost the manufacturer anywhere from $500,000 to $1.5 million.

Pesticide research does not end, however, with the self-policing of the manufacturer. State and federal spending on pest-related studies will exceed $31 million in 1963 alone. Furthermore, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare have the joint responsibility of making certain that all pesticides are sold and used properly and safely. Forty-one states have pesticide registration laws similar to the federal law. Twenty-two of these states have research and enforcement programs in cooperation with the federal government.

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