Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761
In today’s world, no human can avoid contact with chemicals. Water sources—both fresh water and salt water—are contaminated with chemicals. Likewise, chemicals are now found in soil and in the bodies of animals everywhere in the world. Regardless of the terrain or geographic region, the author insists that chemicals have permeated and tainted the environment. She lays particular blame for this contamination on the push to manufacture synthetic pesticides and insecticides following World War II. Moreover, she complains of the chemicals’ ability to modify body processes and alter the function of enzymes.
Chemical pesticides and insecticides yield millions of dollars in annual profit for the companies that manufacture them. The use of chemicals such as arsenic, which is extremely lethal, has given way to even more destructive chemicals. The process of creating these chemicals can be complex. However, scientists primarily manipulate carbon molecules by substituting various atoms within the carbon bonds with other elements to create new chemical compounds. For example, she illustrates how the use of DDT to combat lice generated an expectation of benign utility. Unfortunately, it is anything but harmless. DDT can invade the body. Once absorbed, it is stored within the body and it can begin to affect the function of vital organs such as the liver. Moreover, scientists have not been able to determine the full extent of the body’s ability to absorb the chemical. And there are other chemical insecticides that can have similar lethal effects.
Chlordane, which can enter the body through respiratory or digestive means, can be more toxic than DDT. In fact, it can prove toxic for “anyone handling it.” Other chemicals, such as “dieldrin, aldrin, and endrin” are also far more toxic than DDT. The author cites an incident in which a family used endrin to treat the house for a cockroach infestation. Prior to spraying the chemical, the family dog and a one-year-old child were removed from the home. Following the treatment, the house was thoroughly cleaned and the dog and child were returned. Still, within hours after returning to the area, the dog was dead and the child was catatonic as a result of endrin poisoning.
Another group of organic compounds is alkyl phosphates, which are largely spread through the use of sprays that can remain lethal for weeks after application. Several of the documented cases of poisoning are terrifying. They include two children who used a discarded bag to make a rudimentary repair to a swing—simply handling the discarded bag was enough to cause their deaths and to cause illness in three other children who played on or near the swing. The toxic culprit was later determined to be “parathion, one of the organic phosphates.” In another case, two young boys were killed from very slight contact with the chemical. One boy came into contact with a thin mist emanating from the field where his father was spraying potatoes with the pesticide. The other boy unwittingly touched the nozzle of the sprayer as he followed his father into the barn where the sprayer was stored. In both cases, the boys died as a result of poisoning in less than twenty-four hours.
Gerhard Schrader, a German scientist, was the first to discover that familiar chemicals had unfamiliar properties and were useful as insecticides. Even more intriguing was the manner in which these chemicals destroyed the insects. They attacked a category of enzymes responsible for the proper functioning of the insect’s central nervous system. These enzymes are designed to destroy acetylcholine once it has performed a vital function in the body.
Parathion, a popularly used organic phosphate, is apparently dangerous to humans and insects alike. In a startling example of its sheer lethal power, a chemist attempted to determine how much of the chemical would prove deadly to a human. In a simple experiment, he ingested a small amount of the poison, an amount “equivalent to about .00424 ounce.” His experiment was a miserable failure, however, because he died before he could ingest the antidote that he prepared as a precaution.
Seven million pounds of parathion is applied to crops each year, and this results in frequent hospitalizations of farm hands. In one instance, “eleven out of thirty men picking oranges became violently ill and all but one had to be hospitalized.” The spraying that caused this illness had been completed two and a half weeks earlier. Only residual amounts of the chemical remained, yet even the residues were toxic enough to sicken farm hands. Similar poisonings have occurred more than a month following spraying.
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