This post is odd relative to the “usual” in Treasure Coast Natives, but maybe most folks interested in native plants have environmental interests, so here is a rant that begins with native plant Slash Pine and winds up in scary places. This post is dedicated to folks who assume that what we put in in the air, water, and ground doesn’t make much difference, that “there’s no cause for concern.”
Begin our ghost story with the dominant tree of our area, Slash Pine. Slash Pine occurs naturally across the Southeastern U.S. from South Carolina to Louisiana, and with human help to Texas as one of several U.S. pine species. It and Sand Pine (Pinus clausa) are the only two pines native to Palm Beach County. Slash Pine is “the” pine of the local pine flatwoods, and fares well on poor soils with impeded drainage under natural conditions.
The “slash” refers to cuts into the tree to bleed resin for distillation into turpentine and rosin, an important industry in Florida before the mid 20th Century. Until the 1920s Florida dominated the nation in pine distillates production. My father who grew up in Alachua County had vivid memories of turpentine times. Turpentine production shifted over time from resin from tapped trees to extracting it from lumber byproducts, including stumps. More on that in a moment. Around the world several pine species yield turpentine, mainly these days in China. Slash Pine cultivation occurs in Brazil, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya.
Turpentine is a natural solvent and industrial ingredient. Rosin is the gum left after distilling the turpentine, important to violinists and an industrial ingredient too. One industrial product from turpentine will occupy the rest of the post: toxaphene, an insecticide.
Turpentine is a mix of naturally occurring organic compounds, most of them called terpenoids. Terpenoids evolved no doubt largely to deter insect herbivory. Yet in the great race of plant-insect evolution, many insects have adapted tolerance to terpenoids, sometimes even attraction to them, and insects involve terpenoids in their own physiology. So here is an idea: want to make an especially potent and cheap insecticide? Use chlorine gas to chlorinate (stick chlorines onto) constituents of turpentine. Now that goes “naturally” into insects, and has some kick!
Toxaphene is chemically related to DDT with pretty much the same main characteristics and hazards. Rachel Carson stirred up resistance to DDT in 1962. Toxaphene slipped in under the radar. During the 60s and into the 70s Toxaphene dethroned DDT, becoming the most-used pesticide in the U.S., and remained in use in the U.S. until near-banishment the early 80s. Usage beyond our borders continued. We knew its dangers for 20 years yet showered Toxaphene on ourselves profusely, 34 million pounds per year in the early 70s.
What dangers? Try a little Google research. Suffice it to say that Toxaphene is a proven mammalian carcinogen, and has induced visible chromosomal damage in humans. It is persistent in the environment; one study showed 45% of original soil contamination still there 20 years later. That’s probably the main basis of the famous Lake Apopka bird kills in the late 80s and early 90s, and the “teenie weenies” on the alligators there. Not mere idle speculation. Toxaphene interference with the relevant gator developmental gene is known precisely. Concerns about loitering Toxaphene complicated plans for a reservoir here in Palm Beach County. And speaking of PBC, here is a locally native web site you’ll enjoy: CLICK to get sick
And after clicking, check out the toxaphenous entries under Chelmal Spray and Chem-Spray Agrisystems. You may enjoy perusing other entries for amputated body parts and other juicy contributions to the groundwater we drink. Is Toxaphene in the groundwater we drink? It has turned up in a couple of Florida water systems, especially at Lake City.
And it gets around. Toxaphene participates in the “Grasshopper Effect,” in which volatile toxins jump northward. Toxaphene contaminates Arctic mammals and thus probably Arctic people. The Canadian government had to ban fishing in a lake in the Yukon due to contamination by you-know-what from afar. (See comment below.)
Who made all that stuff? A couple U.S. companies, most interestingly the Hercules Powder Company, which had a Toxaphene plant in Brunswick, Georgia. That foul factory did not get cleaned up until recently.
A Hercules-Florida connection existed around Zephyr Hills, ironically, as in Zephyr Hills bottled water. Hercules had a camp there dedicated to collecting pine stumps for shipment to Brunswick to turn into pine products, especially Toxaphene you can bet. CLICK