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Agricultural Chemicals and Environmental Pollution

The sector of the population known in conservative circles as “alarmists” (read: anyone who considers environmental pollution to be a serious topic) have long speculated gloomily about the link between agricultural chemicals and environmental pollution. It stands to reason, they assert, that agricultural chemicals and environmental pollution be linked. The agricultural chemicals most often linked to environmental pollution include veterinary medicines, pesticides, non-organic fertilizers, and other chemicals designed to eradicate disease in crops and animals on American farms. Since these chemicals are responsible essentially for poisoning forms of life (yes, Virginia, diseases are forms of life too), it stands to reason, “alarmists” say, that we should be concerned about runoff from the application of agricultural chemicals entering our groundwater, streams, and soil.

Conservatives wouldn’t even bother to debate on some points. Even since the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, it’s been well-known that pesticides in the environment, DDT in particular, are responsible for the massive die-offs of birds in regions of America that depend on agriculture for survival. And it’s equally well-known that veterinary hormones and other chemicals used in agriculture have harmful effects on human beings upon direct exposure.

The point of debate isn’t that there’s a link between agricultural chemicals and environmental pollution. The point of debate is that we should be troubled by that link, and by the dependence on agricultural chemicals found in many factory and smaller farms. Sure, these chemicals hurt us, say the conservatives. But they can’t be hurting us all that badly. The link between agricultural chemicals and environmental pollution is there, but it’s nothing to worry about.

What we needed to resolve the debate was a good method of quantifying the amount of damage agricultural chemicals were doing and the amount of environmental pollution they were creating. Now, thanks to researchers at the US Geological Survey and Colorado State University at Pueblo, we have that method: earthworms.

These researchers collected soil samples from three fields. One field had been treated with biosolid fertilizers. One had been treated with pig manure. The third, the control field, hadn’t been treated with fertilizer in seven years. The researchers extracted earthworms from the soil samples and tested them for traces of 77 known dangerous chemicals used in agriculture.

They expected to find traces of these chemicals in the biosolid and pig manure fields, and they did: some 20 dangerous chemicals in each. The surprise came when they tested the control field, the one that hadn’t been exposed to chemicals in years. Seven dangerous chemicals were found infesting the bodies of the earthworms.

There is a link between agricultural chemicals and environmental pollution, even in places where agricultural chemicals aren’t directly applied to the environment.

So we must ask: when is it proper for an alarmist to start raising an alarm?