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The danger to surrounding wildlife from a fatal dosage of 1080 does not end with the victim's violent death. "Following absorption," wrote Fish and Wildlife Biologist Eric Peacock, "sodium fluoroacetate appears to act without being chemically changed." The Western Montana Scientists' Committee for Public Information reported: "Since 1080 remains stable and does not degrade easily, it is extremely hazardous to animals higher in the food chain. House cats, dogs, pigs, foxes, skunks, carrion-eating birds and coyotes have died after eating 1080-poisoned rodents."
But none of these profoundly negative indications has prevented the use of sodium fluoroacetate by both public and private agencies, or its widespread sale by the two U.S. firms that manufacture it—Tull Chemical and Roberts Chemicals—and the Japanese chemical company that imitates them. The only federal restriction on the deadly poison is a requirement that the labels be registered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Wildlife Services makes rules on the use of 1080 for its staff, but they are merely guidelines, not laws. State and local laws about the lethal chemical are almost nonexistent, and the only effective control on its use seems to come from the two manufacturers. According to their spokesmen, both companies limit the sale of the poison to pest-control operators.
"The distribution of 1080 has always been a problem," says Dr. Ralph Heal, executive secretary of the National Pest Control Association. "And it has always haunted the Fish and Wildlife Service—the possibility of this poison getting into private hands. I've been told that there have been some bad leaks. I know that they tightened their operation terrifically about three years ago when they had a real scare after a batch of 1080 got out. The main thing we've got to watch out for is some character setting himself up, getting somebody to write insurance for him and then qualifying himself with the manufacturers. This is always a possibility." It is more than a possibility. It has happened.
A few years ago frightened Fish and Wildlife officials began hearing rumors that 1080 was popping up in illegally baited carcasses throughout the West, and hurried consultations were held with Tull Allen, head of Tull Chemical. "Fish and Wildlife told me that the 1080 I'd sent to three predator-control boards in Wyoming was not being used by Government trappers at all," Allen says. "What they were doing was dispensing it to sheepmen to use themselves. I cut off all shipments to those people. They'd lied to me, pure and simple." Several years have gone by since Allen put the last shipment of 1080 into the hands of the Wyoming sheepmen, but the official federal poisoning Establishment is still nervous over the leakage.
There is little doubt that the flow of deadly 1080 continues into private hands, controlled only by the good intentions and limited capabilities of the two manufacturers. It is pointless to argue whether the total amounts are large or small, for 1080 is a substance that is toxic in the most microscopic quantities. It is also pointless to argue that the poison is being spread way out there in the middle of nowhere, and therefore it cannot do much harm. As poisoners become more and more bold, 1080-trcated carcasses have begun turning up alongside public watersheds in dangerous numbers. "It's common practice for poisoners to put them out on ice-covered reservoirs in the winter," Trapper Charles Orlosky reports. "Reservoirs are attractive places to wildlife, and the trappers have found out they get a high percentage of kills that way. Then, when spring comes, the remains of the bait settle right into the water and they don't have to go to the trouble of burning them."
Defenders of Wildlife News, the trade journal of activist conservationists, is the only U.S. publication that has mounted a continuous program against the deliberate toxification of the U.S. "What is to be the eventual result year after year of this relentless poisoning of our biota and lands?" the journal has asked. "How much 1080 is washed, during heavy rains, into our streams—and absorbed by the root systems of our grasses...? With millions of pounds of 1080-treated baits on Western lands, one ponders the issue of how much of this poison is absorbed by grazing livestock from contaminated grasses, and subsequently transferred to human stomachs in a leg of lamb or roast of beef."
A discussion with a top expert on 1080 is of small consolation. Glen Crab tree impresses one as a dispassionate scientist first and foremost, and no mere apologist for his own Government agency. He minces no words about what is known and what is unknown about the deadly substance. Does it indeed remain intact as it passes from the body of one animal to another? "Yes, it does," he says. Is it biodegradable? "Our information here is sketchy." Does it break down in solution? "It's degradable in solution over a period of time." Are there genetic effects of ingesting the substance? "We know nothing about that." Can it be absorbed by grasses, and thence by cattle and sheep and eventually humans? "It usually takes a fairly concentrated amount of a substance for such translocations to take place. We've had no indication from experience that this occurs, but we have no data on it." Is 1080 a subtle menace to our water supplies? "In the present state of our knowledge it appears not to be a danger to public water systems." If a minute amount of 1080 were to get into a water system and be consumed by humans, what would be their symptoms? "It would depend on the amount, but with a very small amount they might get a lot of depression, possibly some convulsions. With larger amounts, of course, they might show definite symptoms of poisoning, symptoms that any able physician would recognize, or they might simply appear to be suffering from heart trouble." Is it possible that 1080 could accidentally leak into public water supplies and cause depressions, convulsions and deaths attributable to heart attack, and that no one would know the cause? "I don't think that has ever happened, and it is extremely unlikely because of the dilution factor. But if you ask me if it's possible, in all honesty I have to say, yes, it is theoretically possible."
One comes away from a discussion with this plain-spoken biochemist—and other experts in the field—with the uneasy feeling that there are serious gaps in the toxicological profile of sodium fluoroacetate. Whole tables and booklets have been prepared on such practical matters as the exact amount of 1080 required to kill kangaroo rats, ferruginous rough-legged hawks, Rhode Island red hens and Columbian ground squirrels, but no one seems to have done much research into an equally practical matter: What is the total amount of 1080 and other poisons that the sodden soils and polluted waterways of the West can absorb without becoming lethal agents themselves? One asks, and one is told: "Nobody knows."
Someday we may be dying to find out.