'Silent Spring's' warnings not heeded

Thursday October 4, 2012

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landmark book, "Silent Spring," I am constantly reminded of how far we still need to go to address the concerns illuminated so eloquently by Rachel Carson. Examples of lessons not learned continue to emerge on both a local and a national level.

Amidst central California's avocados and orange orchards, a rancher in 2009 hired a rodent control company to handle a rat infestation affecting her livestock and chickens. The pesticide professional assured the rancher that the poisons were safe for the abundant wildlife in her area. Indeed, for the next three years, she had no problems and found countless dead and dying rats near her chicken coop.

Last month, her 90 pound 5-year-old golden retriever, Franz, was acting restless as the family prepared for bed. Later that night he died in the car on the way to the emergency vet. The beloved pet had shown no symptoms until those last three hours. A necropsy revealed that Franz had died from internal bleeding caused by the rodenticide brodifacoum. The rancher was mortified that she had killed her own dog. It turned out that the vet had handled six other brodifacoum-poisoned pets in the past year in this small farming community.

On the other side of America, a celebrated 22-year-old Redtailed hawk, Pale Male, faces danger every day from the ubiquitous use of the same deadly rat poisons around New York's Central Park. Pale Male and his first mate built a nest on the ledge of an exclusive Fifth Avenue apartment building in the early 1990s. Soon he became a local celebrity with his own Facebook page, website, and "official" YouTube video. In February, Pale Male lost his fifth mate, Lima. A necropsy revealed three poisons in her body: all were anti-coagulants found in rat baits -- one of them the highly toxic brodifacoum.

This was the same poison that would later kill Franz the golden retriever. Pale Male found a new mate, Zena, and they had three chicks. In July, two of the chicks had to be caught to undergo life-saving treatment -- also for anti-coagulant poisoning. The third chick is believed to have died from poisoning.

Hawks, owls and other raptors, as well as dogs and cats, face gruesome deaths from these rat poisons. Children are poisoned too. Poison-control centers get 15,000 calls each year because of childhood exposure to rat poisons. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the unreported child exposure rate may be four times as high.

The $37-billion company behind much of this unnecessary sickness and death is Reckitt Benckiser, maker of familiar household products ranging from Woolite and Lysol to French's Mustard. Reckitt Benckiser has refused calls to protect wildlife, children, and pets by changing the packaging and distribution of its rat poison, d-CON.

In announcing its decision, the EPA stated, "These changes are essential to reduce the thousands of accidental exposures of children that occur every year from rat and mouse control products and also to protect household pets. Today's action will help keep our children and pets safe from these poisons."

Other companies have made the necessary safety improvements prudently prescribed by the EPA. But Reckitt Benckiser continues to sell its poisons as loose pellets and pastes rather than in secure bait stations, and to peddle to residential consumers the most toxic formulations of powerful "second-generation" anticoagulants such as brodifacoum. Two other companies, Spectrum Brands (which ironically makes popular pet care products) and Liphatech, have also refused, continuing to market Hot Shot, Rid-a-Rat, and Generation without the needed safety measures.

By flouting the federal directive, these companies are forcing the government to waste taxpayer dollars in a multi-year process to get the dangerous poisons off the market. While their delay tactics are not illegal, they drain public resources and wreak continued havoc on children, wildlife, and pets. The poison-makers are also gaming the regulatory system to gain an advantage over more ethical competitors such as Bell Laboratories that have done the right thing and complied with the EPA's common-sense order.

The rodenticide issue has become our nation's biggest pesticide fight in over three decades.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, it is sad to see Reckitt Benckiser, Spectrum Brands, and Liphatech take the low road at the expense of America's families, our pets, and our wildlife.

Dr. George Fenwick, is the president of the American Bird Conservancy in The Plains, Virginia.


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