Biology: Pesticides: The Price for Progress

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"There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings."It had fertile farms, prosperous farmers, birds in the trees, fish in the streams, and flowers blooming gaily along the roadsides. Then a white powder fell from the sky like snow, and a fearful blight crept over the land. Cattle and sheep sickened; hens could not hatch their eggs. Strange illnesses appeared among the people; children were stricken at play and died within a few hours. The birds sang no more, the fish in the streams died, and the roadsides were lined with browned vegetation as if swept by fire.

Such is the picture drawn of the future in Silent Spring, a new book by Rachel Carson, whose The Sea Around Us earned her a reputation not only as a competent marine biologist but as a graceful writer. Miss Carson's deadly white powder is not radioactive fallout, as many readers will at first assume. The villains in Silent Spring are chemical pesticides, against which Miss Carson has taken up her pen in alarm and anger, putting literary skill second to the task of frightening and arousing her readers. Published this week, the book has already raised a swirl of controversy about the danger to man and wildlife of those modern chemical compounds that have vastly increased agricultural production, banished some diseases, and kept at bay the most bothersome and harmful of insects and rodents.

As Miss Carson sees it, the accomplishments are not worth the price. She explains that no single town has suffered all the misfortunes from spraying and dusting that she describes; "yet every one of these disasters has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them. A grim specter has crept upon us, and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality.''

As Bad as the Borgias. The bulk of Miss Carson's book is support for this nightmare curtain raiser. In a chapter titled "Elixirs of Death," she lists the synthetic insecticides, beginning with DDT, that came into use at the end of World War II. All of them are dangerous, she says without reservation. Already they are everywhere: in soil, rivers, ground water, even in the bodies of living animals and humans. "They occur in mother's milk." she says, using emotion-fanning words, "and probably in the tissues of the unborn child." And worse is to come. "This birth-to-death contact," she warns, "contributes to the progressive buildup of chemicals in our bodies and so to cumulative poisoning. We are in little better position than the guests of the Borgias."

There is no doubt about the impact of Silent Spring; it is a real shocker. Many unwary readers will be firmly convinced that most of the U.S.—with its animals, plants, soil, water and people—is already laced with poison that will soon start taking a dreadful toll, and that the only hope is to stop using chemical pesticides and let the age-old "balance of nature" take care of obnoxious insects.

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