Saturday, September 16, 2017

Bullets of Poison

Lead, condors, and the toxic legacy of right-wing politics.

Of the many ways we have ravaged our environment, some of the most heartbreaking are the silent killers- DDT, other insecticides, PCBs, trash, CFCs, CO2, PFOA, and lead. The same technologies that have conjured out of our environment the many wonders of modernity have also unlocked demons, like plutonium and other radioactive poisons, which we struggle to control and dispose of.

But our thoughtless dumping of pesticides and other poisons doesn't even rate that kind of drama. It took an especially gifted writer, Rachel Carson, to bring the ravages of DDT to light 50 years ago, and we have since slipped into an amnesia through which other poisons like the neonicotinoids have seeped into astonishingly widespread use, making arthropod wastelands of our most fertile country.

One of the more insidious poisons is lead. Through the Flint water crisis, we have learned once again that lead is pervasive, and an enormous health threat. Why have we tolerated it for so long? It has taken painstaking public efforts to get lead out of gasoline, out of paint, and out of new water pipes. Yet it is still common in old pipes, and in coal ash, killing and impairing Americans continuously. And it is common in firearm ammunition.

Poisoning oneself and one's family by hunting with lead is one thing, and tragic enough. But it turns out that other animals can be even more strongly affected, particularly the California Condor. This magnificent bird, North America's largest, is, naturally, attracted to carcasses and viscera left by hunters, and is not a picky eater when it comes to lead. But even if they were, it would be impossible to avoid lead from such carcasses, since lead bullets leave a wide swath of fragments and contamination in the victim. Condors also have particularly strong digestive juices that mobilize more of the lead they ingest than do those of other predators and scavangers, making lead the leading cause of death among the painstakingly re-established and tiny wild population. Indeed, that population can not grow until lead is eliminated from its food supply.


California has, with great political effort, established a ban on hunting with lead ammunition, to take effect within a couple of years. The Obama administration likewise set up a ban on use of lead ammunition in federal wildlife refuges. But the new administration, in line with the rest of its immoral and mindless policies, reinstated the use of lead ammunition. It is one more example of the sheer meanness and spitefulness that seems to pervade this sector of American politics- a segment of the elite and the electorate that could not care less about nature, about justice, and about the future in general. As long as they are "winning" over their perceived enemies, in a zero sum spiral of death, scientists, truth, justice, and the future of humanity, not to mention the biosphere, can be damned. Even the US Army has recognized that the costs of creating enormous toxic waste dumps out of their firing ranges and conflict zones (not to mention the manufacturing stream) is too high a price to pay, and has switched to unleaded ammunition. (Though uranium- that is a different story!).

A similar story has played out tragically in India, where an antibiotic used in cattle turned out to kill vultures, wiping out the population, and causing some very unpleasant ecological consequences in a country in dire need of efficient trash and carcass collection. While we should not stifle all progress with overly cautious regulation, once a tragic consequence from some technological innovation (or ancient practice) becomes apparent, we should recognize our own power in the role of the government to set rules for the good of our long-term collective interests- interests which surely include preservation of our own health and that of wild animals.

  • Defenseless animals are next.
  • Krugman: it isn't just science at stake, but civilization.
  • The irony of Texas.
  • Silencers- as American as apple pie.
  • Bias in the biomedical literature.
  • Incentives only go so far. Character counts for a lot as well- about half.
  • Problems with the upcoming Vietnam War.

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