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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


A year ago a gifted biologist named Rachel Carson published a literate—and modestly technical—book called Silent Spring. In it she painted a picture of disaster that made Nevil Shute's On the Beach seem almost euphoric by comparison. Through wanton use of pesticides, charged Miss Carson, man was poisoning the earth and its creatures. With a leer in his eye and a bug-bomb in his hand, he had lethally contaminated the food he ate, the water he drank, the fish and game he hunted. There was no escape from "this chemical death rain" that was "changing the very nature of the world."

Supporting her wide-screen preview of doom for both man and wildlife, Miss Carson vividly punctuated the pages of her book with dead men and dying animals—all victims of pesticides. "As matters stand now," Miss Carson warned the 131,000 readers of her bestseller, "we are in little better position than the guests of the Borgias."

In the year since, the Borgias' guests have reacted en masse, and in varying ways. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall announced that because of the ravages of pesticides, "thousands of acres of prime wildlife habitat may have to be closed to hunting." Udall further proclaimed, "A great woman has awakened the nation by her forceful account of the dangers around us."

CBS Reports whipped up two special TV shows on pesticides. Audubon spokesmen mourned this new acceleration in the "long term decline in the common bird." Senator Abraham Ribicoff began a series of pesticide hearings that somewhat resembled an old-fashioned McCarthy investigation. Fishermen in Maine rocked the legislature with a broadside of protest when salmon started dying off in famed Sebago Lake following an aerial spray of mosquitoes and black flies on the shore. A West Texas rancher put a fist-sized hole with a .38 pistol bullet through the wing of a crop-dusting plane that flew too close to his quarter horses, and a North Carolina grape farmer put his shot through the foot of a pilot dusting cotton in a nearby field. Dr. George Wallace of Michigan's Kellogg Foundation predicted that if projected pesticide programs continue, "we shall witness, in a single decade, an extermination of animal life unequaled in all history." And finally, President Kennedy appointed a scientific advisory board to look into the problem for him.

In recent weeks, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has conducted its own survey of the charges made in Silent Spring, and of the somber prophecies made by politicians and newspapermen since the book came out. A long, careful look at the pesticide-ridden outdoors has produced some startling counterrevelations:

•Wildlife populations all over the nation are bigger and healthier than ever, not in spite of pesticides, but in many cases because of them.

•A great many pesticide disasters and portents of disaster, reported in newspapers and elsewhere, turned out to be exaggerations, in one case amounting to two dead pheasants.

•Those wildlife poisonings that did occur were invariably the result of misuse or negligence, not the inevitable result of prescribed application.

•Pesticide usage is under tight control—growing tighter every day—not only by federal, state and municipal authorities but within the pesticide industry itself.

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.

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.

But even if there were no laws, even if all manufacturers were evil, and even if pesticides did hurt wildlife instead of immeasurably helping it, there is a geographical factor which would still guarantee the survival of America's living creatures. Each year chemical pesticides are distributed over about 90 million acres of U.S. farmland, forest, and insect-breeding dry lands and wetlands. Weedkillers are used on about the same number with considerable overlapping in certain areas. Thus, the total land area treated with pesticides of all kinds is about one acre in every 12. More than 75% of the entire continental U.S. has never received any treatment at all.

What does kill wild animals? Disease, starvation, winter and automobiles all take far greater tolls of wildlife than do pesticides. Furthermore, the determining factors in overall game populations are not single holocausts but a combination of weather, food and habitat. Still, intensive research must continue, and pesticide controls must be kept uniformly tight. In this respect, even the wildlife custodians, on whose toes Miss Carson trod so heavily, are grateful to her. For without the shock value of Silent Spring, their programs and problems might never have gotten the public support and interest that have followed in the wake of the book. Meanwhile, as research continues and practice improves, the wise and discreet use of chemical pesticides is assuring us not of a silent spring, but of seasons filled with all the rich, new sounds of animal and human prosperity.




Author Carson's cry of alarm prompted fresh studies on effect of pesticides on wildlife