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Free MonkeyNotes Summary-Silent Spring by Rachel Carson-Free Book Notes
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER 3

The Elixirs of Death

Summary

Every person on earth is contaminated with dangerous chemicals to one degree or another. Even though, at the time of the writing, synthetic pesticides have only been distributed for twenty years, they have already saturated the human, plant, and animal worlds. They occur in underground streams and they occur in mothers’ milk. The industry for making and selling synthetic chemicals has grown enormously. These chemicals came into use by private industry after World War II. They had been used for chemical warfare and scientists discovered that they could be used to kill insects, too. These human-made chemicals differ greatly from naturally occurring chemicals which people used to use to kill unwanted organisms.

The main difference of synthetic pesticides is their power not only to poison but to enter into the body and change its processes. They destroy enzymes of the body, enzymes that are supposed to protect the body. They also block oxidation, thus blocking the body’s ability to receive energy. They make organs malfunction. They cause cancer.

Even so, more chemicals are added each year. In the United States from 1947 to 1960 the production of synthetic pesticides increased by five times. It is important to learn about these chemicals we live with.

Most are synthetic, but one organic chemical is still used. It is arsenic. It is used in weed killers and insect killers. From early human history, people used arsenic to kill other people because it is mostly tasteless. It is also present in chimney soot. We know of epidemics of chronic arsenic poisoning in human populations. Arsenic has also killed all kinds of livestock and wildlife. Even so, arsenic is widely used in sprays and dusts around the house. It was used to kill insects on cotton in the south and as a result, the bee keeping industry all but died because the bees all but died. Farmers have long used arsenic formulas to dust crops and farmers have long gotten sick and died from this practice. Dusters and sprayers use arsenical insecticides with supreme carelessness for the ways this chemical gets carried to surrounding areas.


However deadly arsenic is, synthetic insecticides are much more so. One of these is DDT. It is one of a group of chemicals called chlorinated hydrocarbons. A second kind of chemicals is called organic phosphorus insecticides. These chemicals are built on the basis of carbon atoms. Carbon is an atom which has an almost infinite capacity to unite with atoms of other substances. Carbon is found in almost all forms of life and non-life. One kind of organic chemical compound that uses carbon is called methane. It has one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. Chemists have realized that they can substitute one or more of these hydrogen atoms to make other things. For example, they substitute one atom of chlorine for one hydrogen atom and they make methyl chloride. There are many examples of these simple permutations on the carbon atom, but there are extremely complex ones as well. These kinds of changes are how so many kinds of poisons are produced.

DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloror-ethane) was first created in 1874, but not until 1939 was it used as an insecticide. Now it is used so much that it seems safe to most people. During the war, soldiers, refugees, and prisoners were dusted with it to kill their lice. They didn’t get sick immediately, so it was presumed that they would never get sick and that DDT was harmless to people. It was used in powder form then. If DDT were to be dissolved in oil, it would be definitely toxic. The body stores DDT in its fat cells and in its organs. It doesn’t just stay in the body in the same proportion as went into the body.

Fat serves as a biological magnifier. It increases the amount of DDT originally deposited. The smallest amount of DDT has been shown to hurt animals that were tested. It inhibited an essential enzyme in the heart muscle; it disintegrated the liver cells, and produced other ill effects in animals tested. Because small amounts of pesticides are accumulated over time and stored all that time and because these pesticides are very slowly excreted, people are under threat of chronic poisoning. Scientists disagree about how much DDT is poisonous, but it is known that the average person is storing potentially harmful amounts.

DDT and other chemicals are passed from one organism to another through links in the food chains. It is common practice, for instance, to dust alfalfa fields with DDT. Alfalfa is fed to chickens. The hens lay eggs which contain DDT. Insecticides have been found in human milk. By this we know that the infant child is receiving regular doses of toxic chemicals. This isn’t the child’s first exposure. Scientists have found that insecticides freely move across the wall of the placenta.

Chlordane is another chlorinated hydrocarbon. Like that described above, its residues are persistent and it is transmitted across organisms. Its deposits build up in the body in a cumulative way. A scientist in 1950 declared it one of the most toxic of insecticides, yet it is used liberally in lawn treatments. Some people store the chemicals in their bodies for a log time and then are taken with some kind of disorder and some people are struck down almost immediately.

Heptachlor is an ingredient of Chlordane, but it is also marketed separately. It has a high capacity to be stored in fat. It also goes through a change into Heptachlor epode, a more toxic chemical.

There is a special group of hydrocarbons called the chlorinated naphthalene’s. They have been found to cause hepatitis and a rare form of liver disease. Workers in the electronic and the agricultural fields have been killed and these hydrocarbons have also killed cattle. There are three chlorinated napthalenes that are the most poisonous: dieldrin, aldrin, and endrin.

Dieldrin is five times as toxic as DDT when swallowed and 40 times as toxic as DDT when absorbed through the skin. People who are poisoned usually go into convulsions. They usually recover slowly and suffer chronic effects. Dieldrin is one of the most widely used insecticides. It has caused an appalling destruction of wildlife. Scientists don’t know much about how Dieldrin is stored in the body. They know that it is like a sleeping volcano. Its effects are felt when people go through physical stress in which they have to draw on fat reserves. Scientists learned a lot about it when it was substituted for DDT to fight malarial mosquitoes that had become resistant to DDT. The people who did the spraying had seizures and some died.

Aldrin has the strange quality that it often changes into Dieldrin. If Aldrin is used to spray carrots, for example, tests will not find Aldrin, but will find Dieldrin. It is extremely toxic, causing degeneration of the liver and kidneys. It has harmed and killed many people who handle it in the factories as it is produced. It causes sterility. Even so, Aldrin has been sprayed from airplanes over suburban areas and farmlands.

Endrin is the most toxic of this group. It is five times as poisonous as Dieldrin. It is 15 times as poisonous as DDT to mammals, 30 times as poisonous to fish, and 300 times as poisonous to birds. In one sad case, a child was debilitated when the family had the house sprayed for cockroaches. Even though they took the child out of the house during the spraying and washed the floors afterwards, the child went into convulsions and lost consciousness. The child entered into a vegetative state and remained there for life.

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