Chemical Soup


E.O. Schaub


Every once in a while you hear one of these random statistics that actually applies to you, and you sit up and pay a little more attention. Like a few months back I was pretty happy to hear Vermont was officially the healthiest state. Numero uno! How cool is that? I thought to myself, as if I personally had contributed to the state of overall healthiness by first: choosing to live here and second: managing not to get hit by a bus or fall down an elevator shaft on a daily basis. Yay for me! Us! Whatever! We’re not dead!


Even without the United Health Foundation’s annual beknighting of the healthiest state (take that Minnesota!) we all have this unconscious assumption- don’t we?- that living in a rural, traditionally agricultural community is a badge of some intrinsic kind of healthiness. So when we hear news like this we smile as if something we knew all along has been confirmed.


The tricky thing about these random statistics, though, is that before you can so much as pat yourself on the back for having the foresight to live in a particular place or be born from some genetically fantastic parents or whatever, you can bet your healthy little fanny there’ll be another random statistic coming down the pike to make you hopelessly depressed again.


In my case it was the stunner of a realization that Vermont, and my area of Vermont in particular, has some fairly high cancer rates: the incidence of three big ones- colorectal, breast and cervical- all reportedly higher than national average. Whoops. Yes, we’re all just delightfully healthy right up until the polyps metastasize.


So thinking you’re destined to be healthy by virtue of living here in Vermont seems to be the same kind of logic people employ when they think being a vegetarian is intrinsically a more healthy diet- when, in fact, one could be eating nothing but french fries, Ho-Hos and Pez for every meal and still be well within the bounds of non-carnivorousness. It ought to be common sense that just because something on the surface looks, sounds or seems healthy, doesn’t make it so. Or, more to the point, just because Vermont is reportedly health-iest, doesn’t mean we’re healthy enough. Ferchrissakes, these are Americans we’re talking about- the people who invented the deep-fried Twinkie.


Not long after these two conflicting bits of information came into my field of view, this issue of what does one consider healthy- or healthy enough– reared it’s ugly head in the context of our local elementary school. It went something like this: last Tuesday, as all our kids were standing outside the school to say the pledge of allegiance, a chemical company was spraying pesticides on a farm field used to grow corn across the street. Reportedly, there was a “chemically” smell in the air. Promptly after that a parental firestorm erupted. Was there chemical “drift”? Was our playground equipment, in fact, covered with a fine layer of Atrazine? Or Metolachlor? Or Phlembatic Malzohorricide? (aka: Cooties) As parents, we know it is our job to completely freak out whenever something is perceived to threaten a single hair on our children’s heads- all the more so if that thing is both invisible and unpronounceable- and we’re very good at it, thank you.


Strangely, I don’t know why this issue hasn’t arisen till now. The school’s been there going on eleven years, and the farm field has been there loooong before that. Every year they grow corn there, and, presumably, every year they spray the field with concoction of scary-sounding chemicals that, in close proximity, probably make your face melt and your eyeballs explode like the bad guys at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.


So why didn’t this come up before? My best guess is that, what with our collective search for answers to global warming, as well as to the steady, mysterious increase of ever more intricate and weird sounding diseases and allergies, we are correspondingly growing ever more aware of the interconnectedness of our environment and our bodies. Wake up and smell the hermaphroditic amphibians people!


Now, the principal of our school is a lady named Nancy Mark, who has the ability to inspire both a genuine heartfelt affection from our kids and that special brand of Respect-Bordering-On-Abject-Pee-Your-Pants-Fear that is the exclusive province of proper principals everywhere. To her great credit, Ms. Mark took the pesticide issue very seriously as soon as parents began to express concern in the form of telling their kids not to drink the school water, play on the playground equipment or breathe very much while at school. Within 24 hours of the spraying, representatives from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture had arrived with cotton balls in hand, swabbing samples from the windows and the playground equipment, and testing the well water. Kids were kept inside for recess all week.


The results that came back were encouraging: only one sample showed evidence of the presence of the chemical Metolachlor and it was .00017 mg. According to the state, this is a level so minute that a few years ago available tests couldn’t have even detected it. A letter home to the parents explained that this was “several thousand times below any level of concern established by the EPA.”


Good. Right? However, I’m a good, crazy-left-wing-liberal-dirt-hugging-nut-job, so I know what this means. I know that EPA is code for “Environmental Plundering Agency”; I know that they’re in bed with every Agri Biz and Big Pharm and Cancer Chemical out there. I’m aware that our previous president’s idea of “protecting” the environment was akin to the Big Bad Wolf “protecting” Little Red Riding Hood, and that for the last eight years our government has acted accordingly.


On the other hand, when we start talking about “discernible levels” and “teratogenic effects” and “photodegredation”- I start to get nervous. I think my 11th grade chemistry teacher is going to materialize and call on me and ask me to explain the difference between an ionic and a covalent bond, and I break out into a cold sweat. This is how I can tell all this falls under the astoundingly large category of Things I Don’t Know About and Therefore Have to Depend on The Advice of Others- ie: those who never broke a sweat in chemistry class- to decode for me. But which “Others” can you listen to? How do you understand the message when you can’t trust the messenger?


It bears mentioning that this farmer and his family, who, in fact, live right next to the aforementioned corn field, unequivocally did everything “right,” according to the books and the letter of the law. Their field was professionally sprayed under all the requisite requirements for temperature, humidity, wind velocity, and so on. They are a part not only of our local community, but also of our school community as well. They’re parents too. Heck- did I mention their family donated the very land our beautiful school sits on? (I think this is what they mean when they say that no good deed goes unpunished.) They don’t seem to me- from what I have been able to discern from afar- to be unconcerned. On the contrary- all reports seem to indicate that they are also quite upset: upset at the professional spraying company for not giving them proper advance notice, upset at the rampant rumors that naturally accompany any local controversy.


Mettawee Community School

So everyone’s upset. We can all agree this family has right, like any other, to make a living on their land… but the consensus ends there.


So do I worry? Of course I worry- I’m a parent. Like any self-respecting mother, I’d rather give myself a home appendectomy with a rusty can opener than subject my children to even the most remote risk of bodily harm. But just when I’m about to plunge off the deep end of panic on a topic like this one, my husband- who specialized in nuclear, biological and chemical weapons during his tenure in the military- reminds me of all the terrible things we eat, breathe and wear every day. He brings up dry-cleaning solvents in our clothes and carbon dioxide fumes in our cars and formaldehyde in our sheets and mercury in our fish and PBAs in our plastics. (When I recover from the paralyzing depression, I thank him.)


We all swim in a chemical soup, every day, all the time. Unless we want to abandon society ala the Nearings’ Good Life experiment and go build our houses by hand in the far-off wilderness and spend our days growing carrots and potatoes to store in the root cellar for the long winter, unless we want that, there’s a certain degree of bad stuff we understand we will consequently live with. Not that we can’t work to make it better, not that it is unchangeable, but we also can’t take all our fear and apprehension and place it on one convenient scapegoat; it doesn’t work that way.


Stopping one farmer from spraying one field won’t save our children from colorectal or breast or cervical cancer. Wouldn’t it be nice if it would? The real truth, the scarier truth, is the one we really don’t want to face: maybe we can’t save our children from these awful, unspeakable things, the things we’ve watched our parents, our grandparents, our sisters and cousins die from, the things we fear we will one day die from too, because of the chemical soup that has become the daily life of most Americans. The company spraying pesticides that particular day probably had a full day, and a full week, and a full month. The farm across from the school was just one stop among many, many, many others.


I imagine that people will always be in danger of dying from some horrible disease. If it isn’t cholera or bubonic plague or tuberculosis, it’s cancer or heart disease or AIDS. In the future maybe we’ll solve cancer, only to be felled by Rampant Tropical Toenail Fungus or Antidisestablishmentarianism. We aren’t scientists- most of us- and we don’t know what is healthy enough; but we’ve all seem the Michael Moore movies and we’ve all lived through the Bush years, and consequently a whole lot of us don’t trust the people who are scientists to be able to accurately, and without bias, tell us what is reasonable, what is healthy enough. That’s the first problem.


In the meantime, we still all have to live together, and that’s the second.  


UPDATE 6.20.09

My bad: as it turns out, the family in question was not the one who donated the land upon which our elementary school was built. It figures- how often is irony that perfect? My most sincere apologies for the rumor mongering.

5 thoughts on “Chemical Soup

  1. Eve,
    Wow, First let me say that you have captured the situation in words better than any reporter could have, your article or essay is brilliant. Second, I’m one of the so called “scientists” from the Agency of Agriculture, that you have every right not to trust, and that mistrust is healthy. I have to admit I am nervous about coming down to talk with you all, but after reading your words i am hesitantly reassured that we can have productive conversation about what the next steps should be. I’m not coming down to tell you not to worry, or that pesticides are “safe”. The conversation I would really like to have is what can be done in order to reduce risk, lessen exposure, and ultimately help provide some level of comfort to you that your children are safe while they are at school. Its hard enough worrying about weather or not they are being bullied or teased or getting all their homework done, without having to worry about what sorts of chemicals they are being exposed to. I do like your husbands argument and honestly feel he is right, we do live in a chemical soup but this particular exposure, weather there was any exposure or not, exposure to any of the corn herbicides is something we should be able to avoid, especially at an elementary school. I assure you I come to you with no bias and in fact do not pretend to know what healthy enough is. I hope to let you decide that for yourself though, the bias part. If it helps, I do have 3 daughters who are in fact of the french fry variety of vegetarian, we eat organic when we can afford it and grow what we can. In your first paragraph I sort of detected the feeling of being proud of Vermont,one of the other things that I think makes Vermont so special are the people here. I hope to share what i do know about these chemicals and help your community create a solution, not lecture anyone or grandstand for chemical companies. I was apprehensive that there would be no way to have a productive conversation but your words have made me feel better about that. I look forward to meeting you. Although your description of Nancy has me concerned. If there are specific questions you know you want answers to, please feel free to e-mail them to me before hand, that way I can be sure to have that information with me. Cary Giguere

  2. I loved this post. It does justice to the fractured schizophrenia that many people feel who are parents/ environmentalists/ businesspeople/ citizens all at the same time, trying to make sense of complex situations with sometimes conflicting information.

  3. Wow! Excellent essay! It’s difficult to write about these issues while maintaining reason, composure, humor, and perspective. You’ve done it, and I’m inspired (as a writer & person previously poisoned by organophosphate pesticides). Thank you.

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