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Living Downstream

Essay by   •  April 7, 2013  •  Essay  •  885 Words (4 Pages)  •  553 Views

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Beginning the novel by describing the geology of her native Illinois, Sandra Steingraber explains how the land, once a vast prairie, now serves as one of our nation's agricultural powerhouses. Few plant species native to the Illinois prairie survive, instead usurped by species that feed and nurture humankind. 87% of the state is farmland, producing staple crops of corn and soybean. In attempt to maintain and promote successful harvests, 54 million pounds of synthetic pesticide are applied annually to crops. These manmade poisons do not disappear once the crop has harvested; they leach into water sources, contaminate animals and plant life, and are suspended in the air we breathe.

The manufacturing industry holds the remaining 13% of land. Manufacturers simultaneously create large amounts of chemical byproducts during production. Chemical spills are surprisingly frequent; the author cites an average of two per day in the state of Illinois; exacerbating pollution of streams and rivers.

These alien substances, whether originating from farmland or industry, are varied, unstudied, and their toxicity often unknown. Many, including DDT and polychlorinated biphenyl, are known carcinogens.

DDT is probably the most recognizable and villainized of the bunch, as it plays a starring role in Rachel Carson's novel Silent Spring. Reaching peak usage in the sixties and seventies, DDT was part of a mass civic effort to eliminate insects believed to be harmful to humans. Their reach extended beyond professional fumigation; manufacturers impregnated fibers with DDT to create moth resilience, mixed it with paint to prevent household insects, and marketed it to housewives for household use. DDT, banned in 1972, is still found on 40% of kitchen floors.

What our author finds particularly frustrating was the rampant use and celebration of pesticides without the due diligence to ensure safety. The toxicity and contamination potential of these chemicals was not entirely unknown - human breast milk had been known to contain traces of DDT as early as 1951. The author describes the results of various studies; many which link chemical pollutants with cancer. As these chemicals have become part of the make-up of our food, air, water, and earth; tracing the link between cancer and a specific chemical is often times inconclusive.

Steingraber elaborates on the efforts of Rachel Carson, stating that there are three types of silence that she was interested in. The first is the silencing of environmental agencies, the public often doesn't hear about the groups speaking out on potential toxicity of actions. Another is the subject of her novel, Silent Spring, the silence of a world without animal life and bird song. The third was the reluctance of researchers to speak out on the danger chemicals were presenting to the enironment.

As a result of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the environmental movement



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