Ever since Olga Owen Huckins shared the spectacle of a yard full of dead, DDT-poisoned birds with her friend Rachel Carson in 1958, scientists have been tracking the dramatic toll on wildlife of a planet awash in pesticides. Today, drips and puffs of pesticides surround us everywhere, contaminating 90 percent of the nation’s major rivers and streams, more than 80 percent of sampled fish, and one-third of the nation’s aquifers. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, fish and birds that unsuspectingly expose themselves to this chemical soup die by the millions every year.
But as regulators grapple with the lethal dangers of pesticides, scientists are discovering that even seemingly benign, low-level exposures to pesticides can affect wild creatures in subtle, unexpected ways — and could even be contributing to a rash of new epidemics pushing species to the brink of extinction.
In the past dozen years, no fewer than three never-before-seen diseases have decimated populations of amphibians, bees, and — most recently — bats. A growing body of evidence indicates that pesticide exposure may be playing an important role in the decline of the first two species, and scientists are investigating whether such exposures may be involved in the deaths of more than 1 million bats in the northeastern United States over the past several years.
White-nose Syndrome, named for the tell-tale white fuzz it leaves on bats’ ears and noses, has killed more than a million bats in the northeastern United States.
For decades, toxicologists have accrued a range of evidence showing that low-level pesticide exposure impairs immune function in wildlife, and have correlated this immune damage to outbreaks of disease. Consumption of pesticide-contaminated herring has been found to impair the immune function of captive seals, for example, and may have contributed to an outbreak of distemper that killed over 18,000 harbor seals along the northern European coast in 1988. Exposure to PCBs has been correlated with higher levels of roundworm infection in Arctic seagulls. The popular herbicide atrazine has been shown to make tadpoles more susceptible to parasitic worms.
Bee extinction also features in Douglas Coupland's new novel "Generation A", reviewed by The New York Times - Stung Together.
“Generation A” (the term comes from a Kurt Vonnegut quotation) is not a sequel to but rather a thematic wink at Coupland’s first novel, “Generation X” (1991), about young slackers experiencing postindustrial fin de siècle ennui and sitting around telling stories. That novel kicked off both Coupland’s career and — to his ire — a global media frenzy and commodification orgy. From the beginning, Coupland’s novels have explored the vertiginous acceleration of culture as it intersects with media and technology, as well as the impact of those forces on a disaffected subgroup of drifters and eco-freaks, teenagers and young adults, dropouts and designers, programmers and cubicle inhabitants, gamers and geeks. All of it is rendered with the paradoxical combination of empathy and irony that marks Coupland’s work. And “Generation A” is no exception.
Narrated by five characters who begin as strangers and come from five different parts of the world, the novel is set in a near future when bees are thought to have become extinct. A global “pollination crisis” results, and “a six-ounce bottle of 2008 Yukon fireweed honey” now fetches some $17,000 at Sotheby’s. Also extinct are heroin addicts, because, of course, “poppies require bees.” Instead, a sinister prescription drug called Solon has filled the gap, treating anxiety by blocking thoughts of the future.