Silent Spring: Chapter 3,4

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Summary of Chapter 3: Elixirs of Death


For the first time in history, humans are subjected to dangerous chemicals, from their conception to their death. Synthetic pesticides at the time of this publication had been in existence for less than two decades but could be found everywhere in water, soil, animals, plants, unborn children, and human mothers’ milk. The pesticide industry came out of World War II where chemicals used for warfare were found to kill insects. Insects had been used as experiments to test the chemicals for killing other humans. The chemicals are made by manipulating atoms and molecules.


The insecticides of pre-war days were naturally occurring minerals and plant derivatives—arsenic, copper, lead, manganese, zinc, minerals, pyrethrum from chrysanthemums, nicotine sulphate, and rotenone. The man-made chemicals were found to have much greater “biological potency” and “immense power” to change vital processes of the body (p. 25), destroying enzymes and blocking oxidation. By disrupting cell growth, they can lead to malignancies. They go into the bone marrow.


The older sprays using arsenic, as in the southern cotton industry, accidentally destroyed bees and livestock. Modern insecticides are more deadly. Chloronated hydrocarbons, including DDT, constitute one group. The other group includes organic phosphorus insecticides, such as malathion and parathion. Both kinds are based on manipulation of the carbon atom, which has an almost infinite capacity to unite with other atoms in chains. DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane) was first synthesized by a German chemist in 1874 but was not known as an insecticide until 1939, and the Swiss discoverer, Paul Müller, won the Nobel Prize. It was believed harmless and used to dust soldiers and refugees for lice. Although not taken in through the skin, DDT can be breathed and stored in the liver and in body fat, cumulatively. Fat acts as a magnifier, increasing the potency. It can be passed along the food chain, from alfalfa to hens to eggs eaten by humans. The poison can be passed to offspring.


Carson describes the property of chlordane, heptachlor, and the hydrocarbons, dieldrin, aldrin, and endrin, all more toxic than DDT. Aldrin creates sterility in animals; endrin, the most potent, kills fish, birds, and animals. She tells the story of a child and family dog that were killed by an endrin cockroach spray. The organic phosphates, the most deadly of all, poison the ones who spray it and those who get into its drift accidentally. The phosphates destroy enzymes and the nervous system. Even though many accidental deaths are reported, 7 million pounds of parathion are sprayed on fields in the U. S. every year. This particular chemical decomposes quickly or we would exterminate ourselves.


When these chemicals are combined with each other, accidentally or on purpose, the resulting cocktail is even more deadly and unpredictable. There are also systemic insecticides that kill indirectly by creating toxicity in the host so the insect will die from attacking it. Seeds soaked with insecticides produce plants poisonous to aphids, for instance. Herbicides, or roadside sprays, may contain arsenic or denitro or penta that burn up the organism, unable to regulate its own energy. Many weed killers are also mutagens, able to modify genes.


Commentary on Chapter 3: Elixirs of Death


The irony of the chapter title says something about what humans expect from chemicals. An elixir is a compound that promotes health and immortality. The insecticides bring death in “sinister and often deadly ways” (p. 25) that Carson begins to document and tell in case histories. She speaks of the chemical industry as big business. Production of pesticides rose from over 124 million pounds in 1947 to over 637 million pounds in 1960, worth over a quarter of a billion dollars. They are not only glamorous in the world of business, but in the world of science, where chemists win Nobel Prizes for discovering them. She points out that the chemists’ ability to make new chemicals has outrun the knowledge of how they work. They are unaware of all the effects because sometimes the poisons remain in fat tissue and do not activate until a person is under stress, or else, chemicals sometimes transform into another chemical in the body.


Carson uses the origin of the chemicals to point out their deadly legacy. Many were discovered during World War II and were intended for use in chemical warfare or nerve gases against other human beings. It is no mystery, then, that even in modified forms as insecticides, they continue to be toxic to humans. Equally bizarre is the senseless war against roadside weeds that poisons public waters and wildlife with herbicides.


Summary of Chapter 4: Surface Waters and Underground Seas


The surface of the earth is mostly water, and it is our most precious resource. It is a time of great water shortage in many places, however,  because drinking water is increasingly polluted by pesticides. This pollution must be understood within the context of “the pollution of the total environment of mankind” (p. 44). Toxicity comes from many sources: radioactive waste, nuclear fallout, domestic waste, chemical waste from factories, and pesticide run-off. Water purification becomes more complex with the mix of daily chemicals dumped. Most chemicals are too stable to be broken down by ordinary processes. The experts do not even know what the waste products are or how to disperse them.


The pollution is invisible unless there is something like a large fish kill. Even groundwater, far from the site of spraying, has been found contaminated. Water is not able to be isolated. If groundwater is polluted, then the chemicals will not remain localized but will travel into streams and rivers and the ocean. A dark underground sea of chemicals from a plant in Colorado poisoned farm wells many miles away about eight years later. The weed killer 2, 4-D was found in the wells but had never been used at the plant. This lethal chemical had formed spontaneously from the mixture of other chemicals released.


Surface waterways are connected. Streams and rivers join lakes, and birds that eat fish die, as well as the fish, in a contaminated water system. Dead herons and gulls have been found at conservation sites containing large amounts of pesticides. Water must be considered in terms of the chain of life it supports, from plankton to fish to birds and mammals. The history of Clear Lake, California, is given as an example of trying to clear gnats with pesticides, but instead killing hundreds of western grebes. Even when the poison was gone years later, it lived on in the animal life, from generation to generation. Pesticides introduced into public water supplies present the hazard of cancer to humans.


Commentary on Chapter 4: Surface Waters and Underground Seas


Carson shows the effect of pesticides in water in this chapter. The connectedness of waterways points out the moral, she says, that nothing in nature is isolated. The fact that low concentrations of insecticide are used in water is meaningless. The chain of poisoning in water systems builds up, concentrates, and magnifies in the food chain. DDD, the pesticide used in Clear Lake, destroys the adrenal gland, producing a condition like Addison’s disease as well as cancer in humans. Insecticide use in reservoirs is becoming common, and the public needs to be aware.

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