Birds and Bees

by Daniel Zwerdling | October 31, 1970

Americans dump and spray 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides each year on their gardens, lawns, forests, pastures, farms, lakes and rivers; the amount grows 14 percent every year. Literally thousands of pesticide formulations used every day around the home have potentially harmful effect on humans. One Philadelphia man died early this year after household termite spray with chlordane poisoned his bone marrow. The government places virtually no restrictions on consumer pesticide use. Anyone can buy the poisons and use them as he pleases, endangering both himself and his entire community. Lawn pesticides travel up to three miles on a calm day, settling on water which ends up in kitchen pipes and on plants which nourish the animals we eat. Major pesticides such as DDT—organochlorines—persist for years in the soil and atmosphere, accumulating in animal and human tissue. Scientists studying the effects of human exposure to these chemicals have barely broken the surface. Government researchers have looked at a handful in the past several years only because pending ecological disasters have brought them to public attention. “The field of pesticide toxicology,” wrote a special HEW Commission on Pesticides last December, “exemplifies the absurdity of a situation in which ‘200 million Americans are undergoing life-long exposure, yet our knowledge of what is happening to them is at best fragmentary.” The government response to the crisis indicates it hasn’t learned the lesson.

When a suburbanite sprays weed killer on his lawn, chances are he’s using 2,4,5-T, the same herbicide that the Defense Department has dropped in enormous quantities to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. 2,4,5-T has remained a popular all-purpose herbicide since it was first developed as a chemical warfare agent in the late ig4os. But now scientists fear it may cause fetal deformities in pregnant women.

The government hadn’t thought much about the side effects 6f 2,4,5-T until Sen. Philip Hart’s environmental subcommittee probed herbicides in several hearings this spring. As early as 3966, studies by the Bionetics Laboratory for the National Cancer Institute showed 2,4,S-T is teratogenic in rats. Cleft palates and kidney abnormalities among the offspring raised the frightening possibility that such defects among human babies may sometimes result from overzealous use of weedkiller in daddy’s garden. The findings weren’t publicized until the HEW pesticide commission revealed them last winter, and called for immediate restriction of 2,4,5-T to minimize human exposure. Surgeon General Jesse Steinfeld apparently felt worried enough <ibout the chemical to promise that the government would ban it by January. In April, 2,4,5-T production was still growing.

Spurred by Hart’s hearings and embarrassing publicity, the Agriculture Department announced suddenly in April that it was suspending uses of 2,4,5-T in liquid formulations around the home and on water, and would cancel several other uses. Agriculture’s actions won’t go very far. There’s a bureaucratic catch: all pesticides sold interstate must be approved and registered for specific uses by the Pesticides Regulations Division of USDA. Suspending a chemical revokes its registration, in effect banning further manufacture and interstate transport. USDA’s suspension of 2,4,5-T in liquids around the home and on water accounts for only a fraction of the herbicide’s total market. Dow Chemical Corp. (associated in most minds with napalm) estimates the ban will affect no more than 10 percent of its 2,4,5-T sales. USDA barely touched the 2,4,5-T used around the home in granular powder form, or dumped by the thousands of tons on food crops which end up on the dining room table. (FDA considers 2,4,5-T so toxic that it will seize foodstuffs with any trace of the chemical. Investigators have occasionally found contaminated food samples, but couldn’t stop the entire shipments in time.) Instead, it cancelled these uses, a sluggish administrative mechanism which allows the chemical to be shipped and sold while manufacturers petition for advisory committees, hearings, and finally appeal the case in court—a process that can take years. Major 2,4,5-T producers filed their first round of protests in May; five months later USDA hasn’t yet formed an advisory committee.

Agriculture Department officials have refused to take any action against 2,4,5-T used on range and pastureland, which account for 60 percent of its use. They say it is enough to warn farmers not to turn cattle loose on sprayed land for a “reasonable” time after treatment, to make sure the poison doesn’t get in their milk, and eventually human stomachs. What is a “reasonable” time? Former Presidential science adviser Lee DuBridge recommends 30 days. Chemists have found 2,4,5-T persists on land for one year-and-a-half in dry conditions. Why doesn’t the government suspend all uses of 2,4,5-T? Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, USDA may suspend any pesticide which poses an “imminent hazard” to human health. Spraying 2,4,5-T on food crops doesn’t pose an imminent hazard, department officials reason, since six months may pass between the time the crops are grown and the time a person actually eats them. [That view, though not the 2,4,5-T policy has changed slightly. Imminent no longer means “threatening to happen now.” USDA linguists now admit that a chemical causing cancer 20 years after its ingestion is an “imminent” hazard.]

Even under the suspensions, and even if the cancellation proceedings are completed, 2,4,5-T will still continue to be sold in hardware stores across the country in spray cans and plastic bags which every lawn buff can purchase as he pleases. Federal laws don’t cover retail dealers who sell, and consumers who buy, contraband pesticides. The government can fine only the firms that ship them interstate—and then a minuscule $1000. The government can also seize pesticide stocks, but it employs exactly 32 inspectors to roam the entire nation. 2,4,5-T producers, furthermore, can continue legally selling existing stock as long as they merely change the package labels to conform with new government restrictions. That doesn’t guarantee the consumer will follow the directions. Agriculture officials won’t warn the public about the dangers of 2,4,5-T. There are 300 2,4,5-T home products: “Publication of such a long list might be more confusing than helpful,” says a department spokesman. [On October 17, the National Association of Broadcasters attacked a Federal Trade Commission plan to warn consumers of the dangers of pesticides. The warning—“this product can be injurious to health; read the entire label carefully and use only as directed”—is too cumbersome, said the NAB. It couldn’t be gotten into a five-second commercial.

Five environmental groups have filed suit in federal court asking for immediate suspension of all uses of 2,4,5-T. USDA science and education assistant director T. C. Byerly, however, insists “there are no reasonable doubts” about the safety of the pesticide to warrant further restrictions.

The White House announced with great fanfare last November that the government would forbid certain uses of DDT. Interior Secretary Walter Hickel later declared that DDT was taboo on Interior controlled lands, and Agriculture chimed in, banning the chemical from its government programs. DDT has symbolized the pesticide pollution problem since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring first revealed in 1962 that it kills wildlife and accumulates in almost everything and everybody (DDT residues have been found in Arctic seals). So the government seemed to be taking a significant step toward a healthier country. In fact, the elimination of DDT in government programs accounts for a mir\or fraction of DDT used. In the private domain, the government only cancelled uses of DDT around the home, in waterways, on tobacco and on certain shade trees—mere fragments of the DDT market. USDA sneezed at conservationists’ demands to eliminate DDT’s major uses in agriculture, until a federal court suit by the Environmental Defense Fund spurred it two months ago to extend cancellations to non-citrus fruit trees, some vegetables and livestock. And these uses may be perfectly legal for at least several more years while manufacturers exhaust administrative and court appeals. Meanwhile, more than 400 million pounds of the poison will have been added anew to the nation. USDA has taken no action whatever to restrict DDT on citrus trees and cotton, and they consume more than 80 percent of all DDT produced. The District Court of Appeals has not yet issued a decision on the Defense Fund’s suit but it’s likely that the court will simply remand the case to USDA for further study, order a public hearing, or dump the matter in the lap of a lower court. [On October 22, EDF sued California’s Montrose Chemical Corp., the largest DDT maker, claiming that massive dumping of the poison into Los Angeles sewers contaminates ocean marine life.]

“We have used DDT safely for 40 years,” declares Agriculture’s Byerly. An FDA study released in August shows that DDT causes mutations in laboratory rats. Earlier research demonstrated that DDT induces cancer in mice. DDT poisoning in nature is so common that it scarcely surprises anyone anymore: Virginia has banned shellfish and crabs caught on its shores because of DDT contamination. [The state’s agriculture department plans to ban all DDT use save for those instances in which there is “no suitable substitute.”] And Interior Department investigators recently reported, with some bewilderment, that the entire white ibis bird population around Brigham City, Utah, has been suddenly wiped out—probably due to DDT used on nearby mosquito control programs. USDA asserts that such bird mortalities are only “temporary.”

USDA scientists are testing a new form of DDT which they claim degrades almost immediately. That would help prevent more poisoning in the future. As the disastrous effects of DDT on the American environment become more evident, however, the government is increasing its shipments of the chemical to underdeveloped countries—mostly in Asia and South American—under the aegis of Agency for International Development and the World Health Organization. Exports topped 100 million pounds in 196S, a 30 percent increase over 1967. AID officials claim that DDT is essential for malaria control. They note that the DDT is usually sprayed inside houses, minimizing its leakage in the environment; they fail to add that such spraying maximizes DDT contamination of the people who live there. Vast quantities of the insecticide are also used on crops. Indiscriminate spraying has reportedly killed some wildlife, and Argentina is concerned over growing DDT accumulations in its prized cattle. But, says one top AID official, “we have seen very few instances where harmful results of DDT are . . . permanent.”

 

WHILE THE AGRICULTURE Department battles conservationists who attack its sanctions of 2,4,5-T and DDT, it is quietly preparing a $200 million, 12-year program which will dump 450 million pounds of the insecticide Mirex over cities and fields in nine southeastern states. Government officials bill the program as the last phase of the fire ant eradication program, authorized by Congress in 1957 on a cost-sharing basis with the states. The government started its aerial bombardments last month, over the cries of scientists who fear Mirex will poison millions of acres, possibly killing wildlife.

“The history of the fire ant program makes your hair curl,” says Ray Johnson, assistant director of research at the Interior’s Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. USDA began battling the fire ant (famed for its sting and the dirt mounds it lives in), 13 years ago, using dieldrin and heptachlor. The fire ant population spread, but thousands of animals died. In 1962 the government switched to Mirex, which tests in the Interior’s Gulf Breeze, Fla. laboratories showed had no harmful effects on animals. They were wrong. In 1968 millions of blue crabs and shrimp died from Mirex poisoning off the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida, putting plenty of fishermen out of business. So last year, a curious chemist repeated the laboratory experiments watching the test animals for ten days rather than the standard 96 hours. A miniscule one part per billion of Mirex in sea water killed 11 percent of the shrimp tested. In another experiment, 78 percent of 19 mallard ducks tested dropped dead after ten days.

Since 1957 the federal government and states have already spent $70 million trying to kill the fire ant, but it is alive and thriving in the South. The new and supposedly final phase of the program calls for treating 120 million acres, applying three separate treatments six months apart over one area at a time. Old bombers drop the Mirex in the form of a corncob grit bait doused with soybean oil—about 737,000 granules per acre. Convinced that Mirex actually does kill shellfish, program directors have agreed to stop spreading the insecticide over estuaries and waterways. “The accuracy of the planes is the best I’ve ever seen,” exclaims Johnson—although he notes that Mirex is still showing up in water. On land, officials aren’t worried that animals may inadvertently eat the bait and die of Mirex poisoning, or pass it on to humans. “The ants will remove most of the bait, and haul it into their mounds,” says USDA agricultural research director Leo G. K. Iveson. Animals are eating the Mirex somehow: zoologist Denzel Ferguson discovered 150 parts per million in songbirds, as long as one year after an area had been doused with Mirex. (FDA will confiscate meat with more than 7 parts per million). The Agriculture Department is still waiting for results of a field testing program, to see if animals might die from Mirex after all. The studies won’t be completed for eight months. Researchers haven’t found any Mirex-packed carcasses yet, but as Interior Department investigator Tom Carver points out, “if an animal is killed in nature, its predators dispose of it quickly.”

While no one has conclusively proven that Mirex poisons animals in nature, opponents of the program argue that far too much doubt exists to justify continuing what will be the most massive insect eradication campaign in the nation’s history. “There are too many things we don’t know about Mirex,” says Ferguson, “sophisticated biological data like its effect on hormones, enzymes, and metabolism.” Studies by the National Cancer Institute found Mirex induces cancer in mice; the HEW Research pesticide commission accordingly urged that the pesticide be used only where advantages to human health clearly outweigh the potential hazards. A scientist-dominated conservation group called CLEAN (Committee for Leaving the Environment of America Natural) and the Environmental Defense Fund are seeking a court injunction to suspend the program pending more research. But Iveson has declared flatly that the project can’t be delayed. “Research has not developed data showing that Mirex has caused significant harm to a nontarget environment,” Iveson has told CLEAN; he adds “a delay in the program would give advantage to the pest which may never be recaptured.”

Prominent entomologists don’t think the ant can be eradicated under any conditions. A report by the National Research Council of the National Academy2O of Sciences—commissioned specially by USDA in 1967 -concluded that “an eradication of the fire ant is not now biologically and technically feasible.” That report has never been released.

One colony of fire ants can reproduce and repopulate several square miles in less than three years, according to Harvard entomologist Edward “Wilson, who pioneered research on the ant in the 1950s. No aerial bombardment could ever come close to hitting every mound, which ants often hide in thickets. “If one colony is missed, the entire ant population would spring back in a couple of years,” says Wilson. Even if it were feasible to wipe out the ant, the Academy expressed “grave doubts” whether any attempt to eradicate it would be justified. Most entomologists don’t consider the fire ant a pest worth bothering about. “The fire ant doesn’t damage crops, unlike other pests,” concedes one USDA official. In fact, the ant eats insects that do harm crops, such as the boll weevil. Fire ants don’t hurt farm animals, either. The ant is primarily a people pest: it has a strong bite. William Murray, chairman of an interagency committee that reviews federal pesticide programs, insists the ant can make life hellish for Southern people. “I saw for myself,” he says. “I kicked off the top of a mound, stuck my hand in and let it get stung ten or twelve times.”

Mississippi, North and South Carolina have already started dumping Mirex over their countryside and cities. “Some of us don’t think the program is nearly as necessary as the people in the states think it is,” one top USDA official concedes now, but the department is determined to forge ahead nonetheless. “The people through elected representatives in Congress have asked for the program,” declares Byerly. Murray calls it the department’s “mission.” Byerly isn’t worried the program will be stopped in court. “Any damage which Mirex might do to the environment should be temporary. It should recover within 18 months,” he says. “The balance is in favor of Mirex.”

The public might get some better protection against pesticides if Congress passes Senator Hart’s new bill, which would require immediate suspension of any pesticide whenever there is reasonable doubt about its safety, and which would penalize retail dealers who sell, and homeowners who buy, the banned chemical. But legislation is only a small part of the story. 2,4,5-T, DDT and Mirex are only three of thousands of pesticides which the government is scarcely looking at. What’s the use of new laws if the government doesn’t even know which pesticides are dangerous? USDA is currently reviewing two old-time insecticides, dieldrin and aldrin, both used widely in government programs as well as in homes across the country despite the fact they have caused massive animal kills. HEW’s pesticide commission wanted dieldrin and aldrin severely restricted, but Agriculture won’t act hastily. The department isn’t even considering 2,4-D, the nation’s most popular weedkiller (often mixed with 2,4,5-T or with fertilizer) although National Cancer Institute and FDA tests show that it causes fetal deformities in laboratory animals. All of these chemicals continue in use.

One thing the government has done is form a commission to look into ways of disposing pesticide containers once we’ve already discharged their poisons. For example, 100 million bug bombs sit on the nation’s shelves. “How do you get rid of them?” asks Byerly. “The problem hasn’t been faced up to very well.

This article originally ran in the October 31, 1970 issue of the magazine.

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