Invisible Death

Sportsman, author, and conservationist, CLARK C. VAN FLEET is a native Californian who for five decades has roamed the forests and fished the streams of the West Coast. ATLANTIC readers will recall Mr. Van Fleet’s article in defense of Rachel Carson, when the chemical companies attacked her as the author of SILENT SPRINT. In this new article Mr. Van Fleet gives further evidence that Miss Carson was right.

IF YOU were to go to a drugstore and attempt to buy a bottle of strychnine or arsenic, or any other radical poison, you would have to have a doctor’s prescription and sign the poison register. Today you can patronize any supermarket, corner gasoline station, or many variety stores, make your choice of pesticide or insecticide, pay for it at the counter, and walk off with it. Just three drops of some of these radicals in a glass of water would be enough to kill you. Left carelessly where children could reach them, they could maim, burn, or kill, depending on the character of each. You have to read the fine print to discover that they are deadly poison.

An agriculturist, his representative, or his farmhand can buy these same potions by the barrel or by the hundred-barrel lot (fifty gallons to the barrel) at any supply station, with either cash or credit. He can then mix his own formula, apply it to his orchard or row crop at his own determined time, windy or still, drench his own trees or land, lightly or heavily, at his own will.

Rachel Carson’s death in April was a real blow to science. Her predictions in Silent Spring are proving, despite the scoffing of her critics, all too true. In fact, as the truth develops, her warnings of danger were entirely too modest. Accumulations of chlorinated hydrocarbons in some areas of the country, particularly in lakes and in the deltas of many of our rivers, have already reached dread proportions. The volume of fish kills and the decimation of crustaceans and other marine life are frightening. Unfortunately, if we can read the signs aright, the losses and the ultimate danger to humans are just at the threshold of panic possibilities.

In my own state of California the crab fishery on the ocean side of San Francisco Bay has heretofore flourished for years. The crab is one of the sea’s scavengers. Dead carcasses of fish from the Sacramento River and the San Joaquin Delta floating down with each tide maintained a constant source of food for the crustaceans on the ocean floor fronting the bay. In the heyday of the fishery, when millions of salmonoid fish spawned and died in the tributaries of these great rivers, millions of crabs battened and grew fat on the float from these streams year after year. In 1957—1958 nineteen million pounds of crab were taken off these banks. Since then the crab fishery has declined with appalling suddenness. In 1962 the catch was about 1.2 million pounds. In spite of prognostications of improvement, the 1963—1964 season has proved to be another disappointment, and the catch will be considerably less, disastrously so. The price of crabs in the San Francisco markets has risen above that for caviar and even pâté de foie gras, but the fishermen who formerly flourished in opulence now are on the verge of bankruptcy. Day after day the pots are brought up with no crabs in them. Hundreds of men will lose their livelihood.

Richard Poole, marine biologist in charge of the California Fish and Game crab laboratory at Menlo Park, answered the question as to what had happened to the crab crop with a blunt “I don’t know.” He then went on to expatiate on the possibility of a crab Shangri-la somewhere far out in the ocean, undisturbed by man, where millions upon millions of these crustaceans elude us. My own guess is that for the last five years there has been a decided increase in the float of bodies from our inland waters freighted with a deadly load. Thousands, possibly millions, of fish have been killed by pesticide residues where waste waters have been dumped into the river and the delta from rice fields, beet fields, and cotton fields, as well as from the orchards and row crops bordering upon our waterways. Each spraying program is conducted from early spring until well into the summer. The polluted bodies reach the banks of San Francisco Bay in greater or lesser numbers with every turn of the tide. The crabs feeding on these carcasses die from the poisons contained in the bodies. It is as simple as that.

Young crabs are born as free-swimming larvae of rather minute size. In appearance they are something like attenuated shrimp. They are also extremely vulnerable at this stage. Poison-contaminated water at the mouth of the bay, where the young crabs seek warmer-than-ocean currents, can easily account for serious losses among these creatures.

I AM reminded of the river of my youth, as it was fifty years ago and as it has now become in my old age. Fifty years ago the Russian River was a scene of constant rustic beauty. There were deep pools, with sparkling riffles pellucid and gin-clear in the summertime, where the minnows sported in the shallows. Game fish boiled in the deep runs, where a sack of crawfish could be captured by the judicious use of a small net and a piece of fresh liver any evening, and where smallmouth bass could be lured from the deeper water with a popper or a fly.

As one walked along the gravel banks that sloped toward the water, a cloud of frogs, varying in size from the diameter of a nickel to a silver dollar, would jump across the path and plop into the stream to seek safety. Every turn of the river brought the rattle of a kingfisher, the lumbering flight of a heron with his startled croak, the plunge of an osprey as he centered on some unwary prey. In the spring the air was filled with birdsong, the tinkle of robins, the happy warble of chats, the whistle of blackbirds, the insectlike trill of numerous warblers. The world was alive with movement, color, and song. The Russian River had a run of steelhead that was second to none in our coastal streams during the fall and winter, as their progeny filled the river and its tributaries with summer trout. It is only a small stream as rivers go, probably 175 miles in length. It drains but a part of Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

Today, from Ukiah down, about one half of its length, it is a biological desert. Along its gravel shores one never sees a frog, the crawfish are practically wiped out, bass are very scarce, minnows are in short supply, and rarely does one spot a kingfisher. The heron rookery on the east slope of a steep hill opposite the Wohler Bridge is practically deserted, singing birds are few and far between, ospreys are to be found only along the lower river hard by the sea. The fishing has gone down, down, down. Only by the most strenuous efforts of the Fish and Game Commission in planting salmon and steelhead has some paltry semblance of the runs of former years been maintained. And what a travesty of its former beauty remains.

Winter or summer, the river is never clear. Solids of one kind or another are constantly being carried slowly downstream to reach the ocean eventually. In many respects the river is but an open sewer. At times it stinks. The many deep holes that formerly graced its bed are, for the most part, gone. From the gougings of the dozen or more gravel companies that work its length comes a constant outpouring of wash water to keep the water turbid, while the fines and sand fill the holes during every freshet.

The condition of the water is utterly deplorable. Open sewers, outfall from inadequate treatment plants, unremoved detergents (their foam looking from a distance like snow), waste water from food processing plants, pesticide and insecticide residue from the orchards that line both sides of the river for miles, all contribute to this sink of evil that once went by the name of a river. Invisible death to all its inhabitants in the name of progress.

Thousands of streams from coast to coast are in the same predicament as is the Russian River. Every trickle, runnel, or brook that runs through our arable land carries its load of poison ineradicable, unbroken down, fatal to all life, from its source to the main rivers. The landlocked salmon of Lake Sebago and other glacial lakes of the north have been found to contain in their fatty tissues such a high content of DDT that they have been banned as food and declared inedible. In some places lake trout are diminishing alarmingly because propagation has stopped. New York State is deeply concerned about the trout in Lake George. There have been reports of heavy fish kill in Lakes Superior and Michigan.

Senator Ribicoff has made the condition of the delta of the Mississippi the subject of a speech in Congress as well as of an interrogation of members of the fisheries research department and the surgeon general’s office. Ten million fish are reported to have been killed in the Mississippi Delta in the past five years, and each year the fatalities are mounting enormously. The shrimp beds off and in the mouths of the river are being seriously damaged, some completely destroyed. Eventually the venom is quite likely to affect the fishery of the Gulf itself. Chesapeake Bay reports infection which if not sharply curtailed will destroy the magnificent oyster beds. From every direction similar reports are being brought in.

The President has declared war on poverty in round terms. The citadel of democracy shall end this blight on one fifth of its people. But what of the legacy we of today are about to leave our citizens? Are we to continue to flout and ignore the tenets of sound health practice so that a few commercial interests can fill their pockets and spew their wastes and poisons into our rivers and streams to the detriment of all?

So far Secretaries Freeman and Udall have dragged their feet in their own departments. No effort has been made in the field to stop or curtail the use of dangerous or damaging pesticides or insecticides. The Forest Service goes merrily on with DDD, DDT, and heptachlor spraying programs in spite of the evident dangers involved. Farm advisers still link their recommendations to formulas containing endrin, aldrin, and dieldrin, though they must be aware of the dangerous toxicity of these insecticides. The same may truly be said of state and county agents in the field. All seem to take their cues from the salesmen for the spray chemical companies and the commercial agents in their respective fields.

I hold no brief for the managers and officials of the major oil companies, the chemical manufacturers, or their aides and abettors, who foisted on the agriculturist these dreadful combinations of dangerous poisons when they knew full well their nature and deadly properties. Even if they claim they did not, it relieves them of no responsibility whatsoever. If the tests were not made for a sufficient time to determine the true properties of the insecticides or pesticides, their sale and distribution were all the more reprehensible. If they knew and went ahead with sales anyway, it was a dastardly deed.

Secretary Celebrezze and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare have now completely boxed the compass in their attitude on the dangers of pesticide contamination. The indifference of last year has changed to a demand for immediate and urgent reforms. They now request that steps be taken to control the use of pest poisons on farmlands. But the dangers to human life are still being played down. Dr. James Hundley, assistant surgeon general, told the subcommittee of which Senator Ribicoff is temporary chairman that he would have no hesitation about drinking the New Orleans water or eating shrimp from the Gulf. He admitted, however, that if he had an alternative, he would not eat catfish caught in the Mississippi River. But there are people living in the delta to whom eating catfish is almost a daily event.

The danger is now and immediate. The evidence of a rapid buildup of virulent poisons in our streams, lakes, and rivers is mounting every day. The spraying season has already begun in California. Pears, apples, prunes, apricots, and peaches have all been sprayed for psylla, blight, codling moth, scale, and so forth. Some orchards have received two or three doses. Nearly every agent, cooperative, and supplier has laid in his full supply of insecticides, enough to last him well into the fall. In California this supply runs into hundreds of tons. Soon the airplanes will be flying their loads over cotton, sugar beets, and rice fields. The season is rapidly getting into full swing. Later will come aphis, stinkbugs, red and two-spot spider, and so on, until harvesttime. Each application will drench the trees and saturate the ground. Then the autumn rains will come, and every trickle, rivulet, and ditch will carry a deadly load of poisons into our streams and rivers again. This war will not be won by inaction. The time to act is now.

It is my feeling that many of the spray formulas (there are now some sixteen hundred registered in the state of California) have not been sufficiently tested by the manufacturers or the state departments charged with the testing and the issuance of the licenses. I believe all licenses for chlorinated hydrocarbons, derivatives thereof, or mixtures with other chemicals should be canceled as of October 1, and that no further licenses should be issued until the substances under discussion have been tested and passed by competent federal authorities. Then there should be strict regulations for their use.

It should be the duty of the Department of Agriculture alone to issue licenses for the manufacture and sale of any of these substances, formulas, derivatives, or mixtures. The states should recognize the federal licenses and forbid the use of any such formula unless a license can be shown at the person’s, corporation’s, or partnership’s place of use or sale. The corporations manufacturing these substances at present will cry to high heaven, but they have only themselves to blame.