Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 837
According to the author, aerial spraying has been referred to as “an amazing rain of death.” Further, the mere fact that pesticides are dispensed from the air in large quantities represented a significant shift in attitudes. The author notes that public perception of the toxic chemicals used in pesticides were once considered so lethal that graphical illustrations hugged the containers' warning labels. By the late 1950s, however, hundreds of gallons of dangerous chemicals were literally showered from the sky over forests, fields of produce and personal dwellings. This chapter describes two illustrative examples of spraying run amok. The first was a campaign intended to eradicate the gypsy moth in northeastern states while the other plan was devised to destroy fire ants in the South.
The gypsy moth is a natural enemy to valuable hardwood trees. Unfortunately, these insects were able to spread from a relatively confined area of Massachusetts to the entire region of New England. Generally, by means of windborne travel in larval form and in the shelter of plants in the form of “egg masses,” the gypsy moth became a threat to countless hardwood forests in the Northeast. In an attempt to curtail the spread of the gypsy moth into “the great hardwood forests of the southern Appalachians,” the Agriculture Department enacted a massive spraying campaign. The spraying campaign proceeded, despite the successful use of natural predators “imported from abroad.”
Despite the success of predatory elimination, the purported aim of the “blanket spraying” campaign was to permanently annihilate or “eradicate” the gypsy moth. The results were far from successful. Even after the spraying campaign, which damaged crops, destroyed honey bee populations, and even “showered” a housewife with toxic chemicals, the gypsy moth remained. Another regretful circumstance resulting from the mass spraying included legal suits. Beekeepers, in particular, sued for damages and loss of livelihood. Apparently, hundreds of colonies of bees were inadvertently destroyed through the use of DDT. Nonetheless, the spraying campaigns continued although the acreage amounts gradually lessened over the course of five years. Ironically, the gypsy moth population remained virtually unchanged.
In the southern United States, the target of eradication was not the gypsy moth, but the fire ant. Generally, the fire ant had been considered an annoyance, but not a menace. However, in 1957, the US Department of Agriculture portrayed the fire ant as a serious threat to “birds, livestock, and man.” This portrayal proved to be a windfall for producers of chemical pesticides because nearly twenty million acres were quickly targeted for spraying.
Contrary to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s depiction of the fire ant, scientists in Alabama reported no “damage to plants by ants in the past five years.” Indeed, the evidence supported the likelihood that the fire ant survived, in part, on a diet consisting of insects, including the “larvae of the boll weevil” which had long been the bane of southern farmers. Even so, the Department of Agriculture supported the production of a film that depicted horrific scenarios in which fire ants stung and brutalized human victims. The objective of the film was to characterize the fire ant as a menace to humans. Ironically, noted the author, thirty-three people died during the course of the year as a result of “the stings of bees and wasps.” Yet there was apparently no indication that these insects should be targeted for eradication. Further, while caution is necessary in avoiding the stings of fire ants, it is likewise necessary to employ caution around bees or wasps. The author concludes that it is therefore illogical to employ the practice of inundating “millions of acres with poisons” in an effort to destroy the fire ant or any pest.
Protests against the spraying campaign, which employed the use of heptachlor and dieldrin, were ignored and a range of animal life suffered. “Poultry, livestock, and pets were also killed.” In Texas, the victims of the spraying included “opossums, armadillos, and an abundant raccoon population.” Other animals that suffered stark decline and death included blackbirds, woodcocks, meadowlarks, bobwhite quails, wild turkeys, cows, chickens and hogs. Some animal populations did not die outright. Instead they were afflicted with a disease of the central nervous system. For instance, only those livestock that ate or drank from contaminated provisions (in those areas treated for fire ants) suffered from this blight. “Stabled animals were not affected.” The affected animals had symptoms of heptachlor or dieldrin poisoning.
Following the discovery of heptachlor in a two-month-old calf, concerns abounded because the calf may have ingested the chemicals from its mother’s milk. Humans consume cow’s milk as well. These initial concerns eventually led to questions on a larger scale, including a Department of Agriculture decision to reduce the amount of chemical treatment following an internal departmental realization that the smaller quantity was “effective.” Moreover, the state of Florida renounced the spraying campaign because the state housed “more fire ants” than prior to the spraying. Local means of control, including treatment of individual fire ant mounds, were embraced in many places.
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