PETS AS SENTINELS
OF PESTICIDE TOXICITY
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring warned us of the threats to life attending widespread use of chemical pesticides. As a result of her effort the EPA was founded in 1970 and DDT was banned in 1972. Nevertheless, we did not curtail our domestic relianceon toxic chemicals for pest control. The yearly amount of pesticide sold in our country is now more than double the amount marketed in 1962 when Silent Spring was published. Pesticide residues in our food and in the environment reflect years of chemical production and use. We face the continuing problems of the toxic by-products of manufacturing, runoff from outdoor applications, ground water contamination, and finally disposal of unused material as hazardous waste. Pesticides are used invirtually all public buildings, golf courses, schools, restaurants, hotels, hospitals and private homes as well as in agriculture and forestry.
Rachel Carson described the detrimental effects of pesticides on animals including robins, caddis fly larvae,quail, salmon, and cats. Silent Spring shows clearly how deeply caring and fiercely protective Rachel Carsonwas of wildlife. Her concern extended to pet animals as well. A cat owner, she was enchanted by these companions. She once commented: "I have always found that a cat has a truly great capacity for friendship.He asks only that we respect his personal rights and individuality; in return he gives his devotion,understanding and companionship. Cats are extremely sensitive to the joys and sorrows of their human friends, they share ouri nterests" (The House of Life). Much of Miss Carson's writing took place in the company of cats. She would, no doubt,encourage sharing information on pets, as sentinels of pesticide effects on health and the ecosystem.
For thousands of years the company of animals, domestic and wild, has alleviated our isolation, loneliness and physicalhardship. They also could help us monitor the environment; giving early warnings of environmental contamination. Informationfrom pet-owning households should be incorporated into research projects and even the census of the human population. Collecting information on the medical histories and behavior of our pets does not require deliberate experimentation on animals.The 1991 report from scientists of the National Research Council recommended that the government and other institutions develop pet animal population surveys and structured investigations of their diseases and exposure to toxics to monitor humanand environmental health. As pet owners we spend time observing our pet's behavior. This type of information gathering,different from the formal investigations, is open to anyone and is part of being a responsible pet owner. In addition, each of usshould become aware of the identity and toxic nature of various pesticides which may be applied in or around our home. Based on his or her own observations, an owner may conclude that a pesticide has caused an adverse effect. This should be reportedto Rachel Carson Council, or to others collecting such information. After consulting toxicologists and relevant literature sources,the Council will report available information back to the pet owner.
Most people of course do not keep pets in order to monitor the environment. Nevertheless, studying companion animals is invaluable for several reasons. In the first place, we share our living space with our animals; the pet dog or cat actually liveseven closer to the toddler than to the adult human air space. Secondly, animals may be more sensitive and easily poisoned byconditions which seem safe to people. Thirdly, most animal diseases progress at a more rapid rate than the same condition inhumans, so they can be studied more rapidly and the results extrapolated to humans. And finally, a majority of pets (70%) areseen by veterinarians, so that medical histories are available for analysis. Unfortunately, this type of research has not been sufficiently supported by generous grants from public or private sources.
Deliberately exposing an organism which is sensitive to an adverse environmental effect and observing the creature for evidenceof toxicity is the principle behind miners' use of canaries to detect dangerous levels of methane. We do not condone thisexploitation of vulnerable animals. However, information generated in the normal course of care-giving for pets and wildlifeneeds to be collected and used for environmental monitoring.
A cat was described as "a whiskered canary in a coal mine" (Malcom Gladwell in "Cats Nipped by a Mystery Malady "Washington Post 7/12/92). Cats do not have efficient ways of metabolizing and removing complex synthetic chemicals from their bodies. Unlike dogs, cats seem to protect themselves from poisoning by virtue of their discriminating eating habits: theirwell known finickiness. But they endlessly groom themselves and any chemical which contacts their fur or their feet is carefully removed and swallowed.
Various veterinary institutions have files containing thousands of reports of animals having been poisoned, some fatally,following pesticide exposure. This information has never been fully integrated with other data on animals and their animaldiseases in government and private hands to complete the circle and provide a total pesticide profile.
CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE -->Written by: Rachel Carson
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