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Could a “Silent Spring” be that far away?

In the course of a day we’re exposed to pesticides of all kinds. There is pesticide residue on most of the vegetables and fruits we buy and there are even minute traces of pesticide, depending on where you live, in the water supply. Often, while many modern pesticides break down over time, many don’t. Even DDT, which hasn’t been used in the U.S. in forty years, can still be found in trace amounts. For the most part though – and this is by no means a settled argument – humans aren’t seriously affected by low or trace amounts of pesticide. However, when it comes to smaller creatures, to include insects, fish, and amphibians, the evidence is mounting that even trace amounts can cause significant damage.

Bees, for me, are usually a nemesis. They seem to have a special sense when it comes to detecting when I am

nearby. No matter what I am doing they seem to find me and seem to get a special joy out of stinging me. Fortunately, I am not allergic to them and while finding a bee sting as painful as the next guy, I usually just offer a little colorful language and wait for the sting to subside. However, as much as I try to avoid them the natural world would be hard pressed to exist without them. While most of us, when we think of bees, think about flowers, they also pollinate a wide range of crops to include watermelon, onions, cucumbers, pears and blackberries. The estimated value of the crops bees pollinate is in the tens of billions of dollars. Whole industries, many in our own backyard, depend on them. Distressingly though, something appears to be desperately wrong with our bee population.

About ten years ago it was apparent that there had been a noticeable decline in the bee population. This was worrisome, but then, beekeepers and naturalists, found that entire colonies of bees were collapsing. This was a devastating find. Also, just as bad, the rate at which new colonies were being created was declining. They gave it a name, “Colony Collapse Disorder.” No one is quite sure why this is happening, but one of the leading theories considers pesticides, in small, generally non-lethal doses, to be a major contributor. The scientific thinking is that while the pesticides found in non-lethal amounts in the bees’ habitat don’t kill them outright over time they weaken them, damaging their immune systems and even leading to a sort of bee dementia. Combined, this makes them more vulnerable to disease, mites (which are a particular threat to bees), and disorientation.

But bees aren’t alone when it comes to being susceptible to the effects of small amounts of pesticide. Fish are surprisingly vulnerable. Though, once again, it’s not because of an immediately deadly consumption of poison, but rather a build-up of toxins in a fish’s body that gradually makes them ill. I fish near the Aquia Creek. Most of my catch is healthy. But the number of fish I have caught, in particular catfish, with sores and other signs of disease, something that I almost never saw a decade ago, has become noticeable. As our area has developed, the runoff of toxins from lawns and gardens has increased, and with it the toxins in our streams, rivers and bays. If you’re a fish, and have to live in that water, that’s bad news.

One of my favorite creatures, the frog, and there are thousands of species of these amphibians, is in serious trouble. Their numbers have dropped precipitously and they fall prey to diseases no one quite understands. They were common in our area when I was growing up, but today, not so much. Worldwide 170 species of frogs have gone extinct since 1980. At least two hundred other species and subspecies of frogs are in trouble. Warming could be part of the cause, so could loss of habitat, while for some, it’s been over-harvesting. However, for many species of frogs, the primary cause of their demise has been an increasing vulnerability to diseases and infections that normally wouldn’t be expected to have that much of an impact. Again, low levels of pesticide in their environment, are a potential culprit.

In 1960, Rachel Carson, in her book “Silent Spring” warned about the dangers of pesticides and pollution. It had a profound impact on the nation and within a few years led to regulation and restrictions on a host of particularly dangerous pesticides. However, today, while many modern pesticides degrade over time, or aren’t as harsh as they were in days past, some still pose a danger. Even in small amounts. Unfortunately, the damage they cause appears more subtle and just what damage they cause far more difficult to assess. But make no mistake, something is going on, and if we don’t act now to find out what’s happening and then to do something about it, that “Silent Spring” Ms. Carson feared, may become a reality/

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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