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Free MonkeyNotes Summary-Silent Spring by Rachel Carson-Free Book Notes
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER 3

The Elixirs of Death

Summary (continued)

The second group of pesticides is called organic phosphates. People who have to handle these chemicals are at serious risk. Two children in Florida found a bag that had contained one of the organic phosphates. They handled the bag and later died. In another incident, two farm boys were contaminated when their father sprayed a field with one of the organic pesticides. Organic pesticides originated in the 1930s and the German government used them in war.

Organic phosphorus insecticides act on a living organism by destroying enzymes. They target the nervous system. In normal bodies, there is a chemical transmitter which sends impulses from nerve to nerve. Normally, that transmitter disappears after it is used. If it doesn’t the body becomes uncoordinated and suffers spasms and convulsions. An enzyme destroys this transmitting chemical as soon as it has done its work, thus protecting the body. Organic phosphorus insecticides kill this enzyme so the body builds up a dangerous amount of the transmitting chemical.

Parathion is one of the most used organic phosphates. Honeybees become extremely agitated and then die upon exposure to it. One chemist tried to test its danger and swallowed a minute amount. Before he could reach for the antidote, he died. The rate of death by Parathion is startling. Even so, 7 million pounds of it is being applied to fields and orchards in the United States. Parathion decomposes fairly quickly. However, it is not quickly enough for farm workers to be safe.

Malathion is another organic phosphate. It is used very widely by gardeners and in households as an insecticide. It is considered to be the safest of its group of chemicals. It is considered so because the human liver has an enzyme that renders it harmless. However, if something happens to that enzyme, the person exposed is poisoned. The Food and Drug Administration discovered that when Malathion and other chemicals are administered at the same time, there is massive poisoning. This discovery made scientists begin to explore what happens when other kinds of chemicals are combined. They found out many pairs of these chemicals are much more poisonous. The two chemicals don’t have to be administered at the same time. If a person is exposed to one and then to the other, the combination of the two is effective. They’ve even found that an organic phosphate is made even more toxic when it is combined with a chemical that is normally considered harmless.


There is a sorceress in Greek mythology named Medea. When her husband betrayed her and decided to marry another woman for political gain, she sent his bride a poisoned gown. When the bride put it on, she suffered a horrible death. There are chemicals now being produced that act like this robe. They convert plants and animals into a sort of Medea’s robe so that they will kill the insects that come to eat them. These are called systemic insecticides. They have used it one wheat, so that the wheat is poisonous to aphids. A systemic insecticide permeates all the tissues of a plant or animal and makes them toxic. Farmers also use systemics by applying them directly to seeds so that they will produce seedlings that are poisonous to insects. This has proven extremely dangerous for farm workers who have to handle these seeds and the plants that grow from them. Soon, Carson predicts, dogs will be given a systemic insecticide so that any flea that bites them will die. She wonders if people will some day be given a systemic to kill mosquitoes.

There are also problems with the war against weeds. Herbicides are the chemicals that are used to kill weeds. It is not true that herbicides are only toxic to plants, not animals. These chemicals also act on animal tissue. One weed killer is arsenic. Arsenic has been sprayed on roadsides and has killed cattle. They have made water unsuitable for swimming or fishing. Another kind of herbicide is a group of chemicals called "dinitro" compounds. They are some of the most dangerous in use in the U.S. They are a strong metabolic stimulant. Once, people even used it to lose weight. Several people died from it. Another one is called Pentachlorophenol, and it is used as a weed killer. It has killed people who handle it. One of the more safe-sounding weed killers is called Aminotriazole or amitrol. It is used very widely, but has been shown to cause malignant tumors of the thyroid. Some herbicides are classified as "mutagens." They cause problems in the next generations of organisms that are exposed to them.

Notes

Here, Carson describes the main chemical poisons which are used often in the world. It can be a difficult chapter to read since it includes scientific descriptions of the properties of the chemicals and their action. Carson makes it as simple as possible without oversimplifying. She describes the chemical, indicates how widespread is its use, and then often gives anecdotes detailing its dangers for human beings.

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