Monday, 20 January 2014

toxic legacy

From Here on Earth, Tim Flannery P.162-163 
TOXIC CLIMAX? Chapter 13: Gaia Killers 

'Agricultural spraying [that] programmes began in the 1940's, [their] origins lay  in chemical weapons produced by the Nazis, specifically nerve gases synthesised by Gerhard Schrader [who had] overseen the creation of vast stockpiles of chemical weapons so potent that even the Nazis feared using them.At the war's end, American industries gained access to these stockpiles, and to Schrader's technology, and it was soon discovered that with a little tweaking even the most deadly chemicals could be put to work exterminating pests.. Not only had American companies appropriated years of Nazi funded research, but wartime aircraft could be had cheaply, and trained pilots who wanted to continue flying were readily available. In other words, the material required for another war was in place. All that was needed was an enemy, and the obvious targets were humanity's oldest adversaries - the insects that bring us diseases and consume our crops. In order to make the war maximally profitable it would need to be as global as possible, and funded by government authorities. What was envisioned was a sort of Final Solution, in which chemical weapons would be sprayed across continents, transforming gardens and fields into a fertile, pest-free, weed-free paradise. What eventuated was the deaths of billions of innocent bystanders, including millions of humans, and a blighted world which even today carries a horrendous toxic legacy.

It fell to a modest marine biologist named Rachel Carson to document the unintended consequences of this mass extermination. Her book Silent Spring altered the course of human history, and her summary of the 'war on nature' has never been bettered: 

'From small beginnings ... the scope of aerial spraying has widened and its volu me has increased so that it has become what a British ecologist recently called 'an an'lazing rain of death' upon the surface of the earth. Our attitude toward poisons has undergone a subtle change. Once they were kept in containers marked with skull and crossbones; the infrequent occasions of their use marked with utmost care that they should come in contact with the target and with nothing else. With the development of the new organic insecticides and the abundance of surplus planes after the Second World War, all this was forgotten. Although today's poisons are far more dangerous than any known before, they have amazingly become something to be showered down indiscriminately from the skies…Not only forests and cultivated fields are sprayed but towns and cities as well' 

The substances used belong predominantly to two chemical families: the organochlorines, of which DDT is perhaps the best known, and the organophosphates, which include Malathion. I use the term Gaia-killers for them, and for some other substances discussed here, because of the way they can spread through and destabilise ecosystems, poisoning entire food chains. Organochlorines include the 'nerve gases', which act on insects and soldiers or civilians alike by attacking the nervous system. Because they accumulate in the body, repeated exposures raise the risk of severe damage to health. Around forty-two thousand cases of severe pesticide poisoning (mostly from organochlorines) are reported annually in the US. And we're still learning of possible links between organochlorines and disease. For example, while not proven, there are suggestions that certain kinds of endometriosis may result from exposure to them.

Organochlorines take a very long time to degrade, which means that once they're out of the bottle they'll be around for years. They are also volatile, readily entering the atmosphere, and so spread far and wide. Because they cannot be dissolved in water yet dissolve easily in fat, once they are taken into a living body they tend to stay there, accumulating in fatty tissues such as the brain and the reproductive organs. These characteristics also mean that their concentrations increase the further up the food chain you go. Squirrels may have a low concentration, but if a hawk eats a  hundred squirrels, it will accumulate one hundred times as much toxin as was present in a single squirrel. Because humans are at the top of what is often a long food chain, we're at grave risk from such compounds. There are few ways to remove these chemicals from our bodies, but one route emerged when researchers discovered that women generally have lower concentrations than men. This seemed like good news until they realised that the toxins are present in breast milk, and that mothers were eliminating the organochlorines from their bodies by feeding them to their babies.' 

See also: 

Endocrine Disruptors Dr Theo Colborn The Male Predicament

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