explosion was a grand announcement that a new chemical age was upon us. The chemical industry had expanded greatly during World War II. At the time of the Texas City disaster the industry was coming out of a “reconversion depression,” busily finding consumer markets for the new array of materials and the new production capacity. The Monsanto plant that exploded had been built to supply the government with synthetic rubber after supplies of natural rubber from Asia were cut off. Working with the government, chemical researchers had, as well, been developing poisonous organic compounds to be used to destroy Japanese rice crops. Two of the most promising were known as 2,4-D, and 2,4,5-T. When the war ended, Dow Chemical Co. continued the research on the two compounds and by 1945 had 2,4-D on the market as a promising new herbicide. \(These are the same chemicals that were combined to make Agent Orange, the The chemical age came to Texas with a bang, not a whimper. It is difficult not to see the Texas City disaster as an omen of what was coming, though the city itself, in its restrained observances, tends to celebrate the belief that such a disaster could not happen with today’s greater safety precautions. \(And Texas City stands as a convenient symbol of the explosion of the chemical industry itself. How are we to regard this 40-year explosion of synthetic rubbers and plastics and pesticides into our world? The industry has a track record of abominations. Time and again, poisons such as DDT have been introduced into the environment before the hazardous effects were fully understood. Dow Chemical fought stubbornly every effort to curtail the use of 2,4-D, and 2,4,5-T, even after traces of dioxin were found in the latter. Companies keep on producing lethal compounds and ever more frequently we see them come percolating from the ground at places like Times Beach, Missouri, and the Love Canal in New York. Take chlordane, the persistent chlorinated hydrocarbon, a relative of DDT. In the’ 1950s chlordane became a popular pesticide, used on crops, suburban lawns and in homes to kill cockroaches. Even then, an FDA toxicologist had described chlordane as “one of the most toxic of insecticides.” But by 1974 more than 21 million pounds of the pesticide were being produced. Studies had begun to link chlordane to cancer, yet it was not until 1978 that the EPA decided to phase out the chemical. By this time traces of chlordane were turning up in food, soil, and human tissue. The chemical is still used in underground applications to control termites and cases of misapplication still cause complaints and illnesses. The use of pesticides doubled from 1969 to 1979. The most immediate victims of pesticide spraying are the nation’s five million farmworkers, who report thousands of cases of poisoning per year and, presumably, don’t report thousands more. It was only in 1985 that the state agriculture department set elemental restrictions on pesticide spraying this after 40 years of heavy use. Now growers are required to post notice of crop-dusting, and 24-hour and seven-day periods were established for certain pesticides before farmworkers would be allowed to reenter the fields. But cases of direct spraying of the workers continue to come to light. The chemical society, of course, has become a cancerous society. One in four Americans now find themselves with some form of cancer. Whereas cancer among children was rare in the early part of this century, it is now the leading cause of death for children aged 1 to 10. High incidences of malignant disease can be found in rings around the industrial centers of the country. Midland County, Michigan, where Dow Chemical Co. made various dioxin-containing products, saw an 800 percent increase in cancer from 1970 through . 1978. A report by a presidential Council on Environmental Quality in 1978 stated that “most researchers agree that 70 to 90 percent of all cancers are caused by environmental influences and are hence theoretically preventable.” The view of the chemical industry is that dietary factors and cigarette smoking are the villains here and that the role of other environmental pollutants is exaggerated by nature-lovers who don’t sufficiently appreciate the contributions of modern science. THERE IS A CERTAIN barbarism to what corporate promoters refer to as “our modern way of life.” Consider the common practice here in the heart of civilization of spraying dangerous pesticides from the sky onto workers in the fields, as if they were some lower form of species barely distinguishable from the boll weevils and the nematodes. The very idea of the massive poisoning of insects, for another thing, is a primitive response to the natural world it is the technological extension of the blunt club, falling clumsily on targeted pests as well as innocent bystanders. Going through generations in days, the insects continually adapt to the weapons we use. But humans do not adapt to the poisons and we are left to live with them. Our technology has advanced so much faster than our understanding. In the scientific community the biologists have simply been overwhelmed by the industrial barons and their hired chemists and salesmen and merchants. And so we have built a way of life based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the natural world; that is, that we can remake it under the guidance of a few driving principles that have to do with private profit. We are creating chemical substances and products that we don’t need pesticides that don’t eliminate insect damage, plastic containers that are used once and junked forever, aerosol propellants that eat a hole in the ozone layer. We are cooking vegetables in plastic pouches! In the important environmental work The Closing Circle ever more substances into the world that are not found in the natural living system. “For every organic substance produced by a living organism, there exists, somewhere in nature, an enzyme capable of breaking that substance down,” he writes. “In effect, no organic substance is synthesized unless there is a provision for its degradation; recycling is thus enforced. Thus, when a new man-made organic substance is synthesized with a molecular structure that departs significantly from the types ‘ which occur in nature, it is probable that no degradative enzyme exists, and the material tends to accumulate.” This, in an understated way, describes the central fact of the chemical age: the material tends to accumulate. Whether it is chlordane or DDT accumulating in bodily tissue, or whether it is plastics and solvents accumulating in an out-of-the-way waste dump somewhere, we must ask ourselves: how will we go on living with so many new chemicals that have no place in nature? There is no question that for almost everyone living in industrial society the importance of the next paycheck far exceeds the importance of a few parts per million of some unseen chemical. Nor is it difficult to understand why a farmer who is told he can get back $3 for every $1 spent on pesticides will come to depend on agricultural chemicals. But the chemical industry is resting on giant myths. One is that the way to “better living” is through chemistry by which is meant the products of the chemical industry. In fact, there are ways to achieve better farming though means other than chemical, such as controlling pests by trying to restore a balance in the environment so that insects will meet their THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
You May Also Like
The Texas Rangers are tasked with investigating corruption and crimes by public officials. Those officials are rarely held accountable.