Silent Spring: Chapter 11,12

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Summary of Chapter 11: Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias


Now Carson turns from mass spraying to the ordinary chemicals people buy and use every day. She argues that from a daily contact with chemicals from birth to death, the progressive build-up in the body leads to “cumulative poisoning” (p. 157). Insecticides in the supermarket look harmless and normal to us but can send a cloud of dieldrin into corners with a push button. Poison in the kitchen is common with insecticide-treated shelf paper. There are lotions and creams for mosquitoes and chiggers. Strips of lindane hang in the closet with no warning on the label. Gardening is unthinkable without a supply of pesticides, yet there have been cases of death from parathion. One can still sprinkle dieldrin or chlordane on the lawn.


Chemical residue on food is another tragic topic. People before 1942 had no DDT in their bodies. The general population since then lives with pesticides in their tissues. Animal fats have the highest concentration, and cooking does not destroy them. Milk is the only food in which the FDA allows no pesticides. The Food and Drug Administration cannot give adequate protection. They have jurisdiction only over interstate commerce, and they do not have many inspectors. In addition, they set tolerances on poisons and other debris in food. Carson says one solution is that they should abolish tolerances on chlorinated hydrocarbons altogether. We must explore non-chemical methods of growing food.


Commentary on Chapter 11: Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias


The chapter title refers to the Borgias, the Renaissance Italian family famous for solving their rivalries by poisoning one another. It would be so easy today when everyone is walking around already with a load of poison, never knowing when it will get to a critical level and trigger a health crisis! Carson dubs this “the age of poisons” (p. 157), again referring to the future reputation of our civilization. Is that how we will be remembered? We refer to other times as “The Age of Reason” or “The Age of Innocence.” Whole civilizations suddenly disappear from some calamity. Will this be ours? The stories about companies and government agencies spraying their own citizens with poison without their knowledge or permission sounds like science fiction, or like the totalitarian politics of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four.


Summary of Chapter 12: The Human Price


Once humans lived in fear of disease, such as smallpox, cholera, and plagues. Now that they are somewhat under control through sanitation and drugs, we have new environmental problems created by ourselves through radiation in all its forms, a condition not part of our biological heritage. We live in fear of joining the dinosaur as obsolete. Carson calls our condition “environmental disease” (p. 169). Sudden death by chemical spraying is a tragic accident, but we live with the delayed effects of daily intake of chemicals. Chemical poisoning is cumulative. There is the outer ecology of the world, and the inner ecology of our bodies where cause and effect are not simple. It is not easy to detect the beginning of disease in someone unless there are dramatic symptoms.


Fat-soluble insecticides are stored in individual cells where they interfere with oxidation and energy production. The liver is particularly affected by chlorinated hydrocarbons. The liver is involved in digestion and metabolism and takes care of toxic waste. There has been a sharp rise in hepatitis and cirrhosis with the advent of chemicals. Both types of insecticides, the chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphates, affect the nervous system, especially the cerebellum and motor cortex. Symptoms of poisoning include tiredness, heaviness, aching limbs, joint pains, tremors, distressing mental state, depression, irritability, and mental incompetence.


Sometimes a chemical reacts or combines with another in the body, or magnifies its potency under certain conditions. Dieldrin can have long-term effects such as loss of memory, insomnia, nightmares, and mania. Lindane is stored in the brain and affects its functioning but is commonly used in insecticide vaporizers in the home. Organic phosphates lead to paralysis and mental disorders. Parathion and malathion, used in the garden, can cause muscular paralysis.


Commentary on Chapter 12: The Human Price


This is a straightforward analysis of how different chemicals cause “Confusion, delusions, loss of memory, mania—a heavy price to pay for the temporary destruction of a few insects” (p.178). Yet insecticides are so much a part of our culture that most people reach for a can of something potent when they see bugs or pests in the house or garden.

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