My column in today’s Baltimore Sun is a reminder of life before the Great Awareness — before Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” before the first Earth Day and the dawn of the modern environmental movement, before Americans questioned the motives of corporations, before we fully understood the damage that chemical compounds could do in the quest for “better living through chemistry.”

The disturbing and problematic ubiquity of PFAS — in our water and soil, in our bodies — is a reminder how life once was. It reminded me of the years my father sprayed his grapes with something called Arsenate of Lead. Every summer, in an effort to combat the Japanese beetles that ate the leaves of his concord grapes, Iron Joe mixed an odorous white powder with water, poured it into a copper plant sprayer, gave it a few pumps and spent the next few minutes coating every leaf on his vines with that stuff. It left a grayish film on the leaves and the grapes.

Of course, when the fruit was ready, we harvested the grapes and washed them off, though I can’t say we always did the latter. My mother made grape jelly and juice, and the juice, with a fair amount of pulp, was superb. We never thought there was anything wrong because the Arsenate of Lead defended our grapes from insects. 

At some point, a Great Awareness occurred in our backyard in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts. My older brother Joe, a scientist with the Food and Drug Administration, talked my father into ending the practice of spraying his grapes with that awful stuff — there was a definite benefit to having a chemist and toxicologist in the family in the 1970s — and Arsenate of Lead was later taken off the market. 

It’s still around, however, in the ground where our grape arbor stood and, across the country, in the soil of orchards where the poison was used for years to protect fruit trees. Chemicals linger in the environment; some man-made compounds break down faster than others, but all in some way change the composition of the natural world into which they were introduced. And some cause harm, some cause cancer. The PFAS family of “forever chemicals” brought us Scotchgard and Teflon and other substances to make our lives better, or so we believed before the Great Awareness.                                 

One thought on “Spraying poison: Back in the day, it was OK

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