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Essay: Atonement

April 27, 2011

Rachel Carson, a courageous scientist who made enormous contribution to our understanding of ecology. Shame on the chemical lobby for their attempts to silence her findings.

I have a confession to make.  About 50 years ago as a college student, I worked a few summers for the Union County (New Jersey) Mosquito Extermination Commission (UCMEC). In this capacity, I was personally responsible for the death of billions of mosquitoes and countless other innocent organisms unlucky enough to come into contact with the deadly stuff I sprayed.  This despite my father’s warnings I was poisoning myself. Archie was a union organizer, concerned with worker health. As a member of the “Book of the Month Club” he had gotten a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I ignored his advice and continued my biocidal activities – where else could an 18-year old earn $2.95 an hour (the minimum wage at the time was less than two bucks). And of course mosquitoes bite and carry dangerous diseases.

Wigglers: Vinnie was our crew boss.  An Italian immigrant pushing retirement, he had little formal education. Yet his knowledge of mosquitoes  and their environments was formidable. He showed us how mosquitoes (which have many generations per summer) lay their “egg boats” in stagnant water. Each “boat” has dozens of eggs which hatch into little mosquito larvae less than ¼ inch in length; these feed on algae and bacteria. Spraying the pesticide-laden oil forms a thin slick over the water depriving the larvae of oxygen and their chance to mature and fly away as adults. Only the females feed on the blood they need to produce eggs. The males are content to dine on nectar.

Female adult about to deposit an egg boat into the still water below: Source:

Mosquito larvae, there breathing tubes extend upward to the surface. Oil suffocates the larvae. Source:


Occasionally I would see a dead bird lying in a drainage ditch which I had sprayed the week before.

The best breeding grounds were the shallow ponds found in the local garbage dump which consisted of huge, uncovered mountains of rotting garbage. The ponds, surfaces black with the little wigglers, were a flavorful broth. Despite, the visceral satisfaction I got by killing billions in a single hour, our visits to the aromatic dump was not my favorite tour of duty. (Garbage dumps were replaced by “sanitary landfills” during the 1970’s and 80’s.)

Mosquito Breeding Nirvana

Ecology: Vinnie’s territory had the most swamp land in the county. Yet he had the lowest mosquito trap counts. Much of the credit goes to Vinnie’s ecological savvy. He showed us that most freshwater in marshes invariably had lots of predators, water beetles, skates, fish, dragon flies, etc.. “If I ever see you spray water with water beetles, you fired.” The need to spray less allowed us to finish the work by lunchtime leaving afternoon for  (a) sleeping (b) playing horseshoes in the swamp (c) weeding Vinnie’s garden.

There was only one problem with this happy arrangement.  Once in a while there was far too much oil left in the tank. And if the yard boss found out he would suspect that Vinnie and and crew were slacking off. To avoid this indictment, Vinnie drove the truck to a secluded spot where he attached a hose to the tank, turned on the spigot and let the oil flow into a storm sewer and nearby stream. These streams ultimately flow past the huge Bayway refinery area into the Arthur Kill and ultimately into the New York Bay and the Atlantic fisheries beyond.


An ecological perspective:  From standpoint of our crew, we did what was efficient and expedient. However, we externalized the damages and costs of our actions. What we did on a small scale was to follow the dominant economic paradigm which defines efficiency from the standpoint of individual entities. Large corporations have an exponentially bigger capacity to impose environmental as well as economic damages on the “whole.”

There is however, an alternative approach – one which emphasizes the efficiency and well being from a systemic and holistic viewpoint, an approach which values actions which contribute to the well being of the whole. This leads us to the next question: What role should governments play in protecting the natural and economic resources needed to maintain healthy and resilient societies and our ecological life support systems. We will take up this issue in the next post.

Eventually, I did read Silent Spring and came to acknowledge my father’s wisdom. My atonement also included an itchy red rash on my back – the place where the oil periodically leaked from my spray can. This leads me to some unpleasant thoughts: If I must spend time in purgatory, what if it’s administered by hordes of angry mosquitoes? Worse, yet, karma: I might be reincarnated as a mosquito in Union County.

Purgatorial vision: source: Joel Sartore/National Geographic Image Collection

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. permalink*
    June 11, 2011 9:24 pm

    My mother Jeanette has informed me that it was she that had the subscription to the Book of the Month Club and was the first to ring the alarm on pesticides after reading Rachel Carson’s the Silent Spring.

    I am sure that both parents tried to get me to give up one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had.

  2. Charlie Grob permalink
    April 28, 2011 3:50 pm

    Hank, what a great, thought provoking post! I am certainly not in the forgivness business, but from one who actually went swimming in the Arthur Kill (off of the Elizabeth Port ferry boat piers), you might want to view your “Billions Killed” as an heroic act. Imagine, just a few of those “billions” have caused countless world-wide, human misery and death. Surely, we need better ways, but in the meantime take your name off the Purgatory List!

    • Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. permalink*
      April 28, 2011 9:32 pm

      Charlie, it may be much worse. I’m not sure exactly where we dumped the tainted oil. I hope it wasn’t the Rahway River or one of its tributaries because they used the River as a source of drinking water. If that’s the case, purgatory may be the least of my worries for the beyond.

      But thanks for your forgiveness and I hope you didn’t have any ill effects from swimming in the Arthur Kill whose banks flow not only past the Bayway refineries but the Fresh Kill Landfill in Staten Island.

      Best, Hank

  3. Laura Rench permalink
    April 28, 2011 1:34 pm

    As a young man , one of my husband’s favorite summer activities was chasing a tanker truck through the streets of Arcanum, Ohio as it dispersed hundreds of gallons of the “harmless” chemical, DDT, to destroy the dreaded mosquito. It was like running through sprinklers to stay cool.Everyone in town did it. For years.

  4. April 28, 2011 7:15 am

    Great post. It explains so much and may account for the author’s future career choice, at least in part!

  5. Joyce Hreha Stringer permalink
    April 27, 2011 7:55 pm

    Excellent…. U
    I lived in the BayWay section of Elizabeth as a very young child ….. Thanks Standard Oil for your pollution…. I lived in Daytona Beach Fl for 25 years …. In 1978 the year I moved there an inventor tried out his 125 mpg modified Chevy …. Wow what a great invention ….we all thought …. We never did hear from that inventor EVER again …. Maybe he was bought off big time for mere millions for his gas saving invention while the oil clanked went on to make their billions and continue to pollute ….

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