Better living through chemistry?

May 7, 2018

Post World War II America produced a huge crop of little baby boomers and there were lots of new products to buy, produced through research, chemical and otherwise during the war. Those of a certain age likely remember chasing the sprayers that doused parks and byways with oceans of DDT to kill those pesky mosquitoes.

 

It didn’t occur to lots of moms and dads that the stuff that killed the bugs couldn’t be very good for their little darlings to inhale, not to mention long term effects on the environment. Environment? An unfamiliar word back then. And the companies getting rich off peddling the stuff didn’t spend time explaining the potential impacts of toxic  chemicals or offer precautionary directions for using them. The consequences would become known much later, leading to an eventual ban on DDT.

 

But Dow and Monsanto were busy producing plenty of other products to make our lives easier in the short term, but likely more toxic down the road. At this late date we’re just figuring out the effects of indiscriminate application of the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War on both U.S. vets and the Asian environments of that war.

 

Everybody knew about DDT when I was a kid, but the chemical/poison most talked about in my family was named Rotenone. That’s because my dad was a fisheries guy for the state of Wisconsin. As he and his colleagues saw it, their job was to produce a huge crop of freshwater fish such as trout to stock in streams and lakes. That way, sport fishermen would buy lots of licenses and the legislators who authorized the program would be happy with the revenue generated and that’s how it mostly worked.

 

Unfortunately, freshwater carp and other invasive species messed up this little system and drove out the favored fish and they were very hard to get rid of.

 

 1965: Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles with

his favored fish species, which definitely wasn't Carp.

 

Not to worry, the chemical companies came up with a solution. Rotenone, naturally derived from plants, had been around for centuries as—among other things—a fish killer. It turned out to selectively kill some fish, such as carp, while leaving the sport fish alone. Or, it could just kill all the fish in a pond or lake, allowing the desired fish to be stocked afterward. The companies monetized the stuff, turning it into a sprayable product that could easily be applied

 

In the early 50s, Dad supervised successful applications of this new miracle product. Just another day out in the field except for the consequences to come later. Whether the companies knew or suspected any potential problems or warned purchasers has apparently never been determined, but those applying it in this case were not wearing respirators. 

 

Dad developed symptoms of asthma so violent that his early morning sneezing would spray blood on the bathroom mirror. I often tagged along on his visits to his allergist who provided his ‘de-sensitizing’ shots. Dr. Burke was a nice elderly man, who would give me a nickel to squeeze when he gave the shot, saying that would prevent any pain to the old man.

 

Over the next 25 or so years, the symptoms faded and dad went on to live a long and energetic life. But in his last few years, this lifetime non-smoker developed clear indications of incipient oral cancer.

 

I wish I could report that dad learned a valuable lesson from the Rotenone experience, but I can’t. Tired of ‘edging’ the parkway in front of our house with a shovel, he picked up a box of powder at the hardware store, likely some herbicide cousin of Agent Orange. Never one for half measures, I am sure he applied a generous amount along the concrete.

 

This proved to be an expensive decision. After the first rainstorm that followed, not only all the grass on his parkway died, but the chemical washing down slope also killed off his neighbor’s parkway. Dad wound up footing the bill for removing and replacing the likely sterile soil from both properties.

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