National Geographic : 1970 Dec
own activities, we have little awareness of side effects that those activities may be hav ing on the world outside. Let me illustrate by following one pollutant-mercury-in its course from helper to poisoner of man. The first mercury seed dressing was devel oped half a century ago, and became popular because it inhibited seed mold. Other indus tries were attracted by those fungicidal abili ties. Mercury became common in such busi nesses as papermaking and diaper laundering; mercury is an important catalyst in the manu facture of a basic plastic, polyvinyl chloride. But Dr. Barry Commoner's "no-free-lunch" rule comes into play at this point. Sweden's pheasant population was drastically reduced because the birds ate seeds treated with mer cury. Canadians found mercury in partridges and fish.* Almost 100 Japanese died from eating fish caught in Minamata Bay-a poly vinyl chloride plant dumped its waste there. Americans became mercury conscious last July, when fish from 20 states and Canada were found to contain concentrations of the poison. The Department of Justice filed suits against eight U. S. chemical and paper com panies, insisting on an immediate halt to water pollution by mercury. Strip Mines Ravage the Land Perhaps our tardiness in combating mer cury poisoning can be laid to its lack of visi bility. But what of so visible a destroyer of our environment as strip mining? This mode of extraction has brought devas tation to parts of Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other mining states. Mountains are decapitated, farmlands gutted, wildlife habitats destroyed. Erosion runs wild through the denuded landscapes, choking streams with silt; rains and seepage add deadly acids. After more than half a century of neglect, most affected states now have laws to curb some of the worst ravages of the strip miners. Today one can see teams of reclamation ex perts following in the tracks of coal-mining shovels. Aircraft spread tons of seed to reveg etate disturbed terrain. Parks, lakes, shopping centers, housing developments are being built on mined lands. This doesn't mean the destruction has stopped. Reclamation often cannot undo all the damage caused by stripping. Even where it can, there are intervening years of eye shocking landscape disfigurement. What's more, nobody takes responsibility for the 776 thousands of square miles of "orphan banks" -lands mutilated and abandoned by strip pers in decades past. The job of patching these up has been left to nature, which may take a century to restore them-if they can be restored at all. Sweden Teaches Its Citizens Ecology Among European countries, one of the leaders in the fight against pollution is Swe den. In Stockholm, I lunched with Tage Er lander, Sweden's recently retired Prime Min ister, who heads the planning committee for the International Pollution Control Confer ence to be held in the Swedish capital in 1972. *See "Canada's Heartland, the Prairie Provinces," by W. E. Garrett, in the October 1970 GEOGRAPHIC.